October 9, 2014
This week marks the anniversary of one of the most catastrophic events in Chicago history, The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It’s hard to believe that with just a spark a third of what is now the third largest city in the nation was leveled. However, the progress made over the subsequent 143 years since demonstrates the vibrant and supportive spirit of its people.
There is still debate as to exactly how the blaze started late in the evening of October 8th, but no one can refute the damage that was done over those two catastrophic days: over 17,000 buildings burned, 300 lives lost and nearly 100,000 people left without homes.
Before the blaze just over 334,000 people lived in Chicago, many of them immigrants seeking a better life, starting businesses and making new homes. In 1869 the Thorsen family, founders of The Danish Home of Chicago, had been one of these families. I wonder how The Great Fire affected their lives? This 1899 article from the Skandinaven, one of the largest newspapers started by Norwegian immigrants in 1866, describes a first-hand account of the nights of the fire, and how it affected some Danish residents and business owners.
In the aftermath of the fire Chicago literally rose from the ashes. A great reconstruction phase began almost immediately. Due to its location and ample job opportunities many people flocked to Chicago, and by 1880 its population was nearly half a million strong.
Many people are to thank for shaping the city of Chicago over the past 143 years into what it is today. Unequivocally, one of those individuals is Danish immigrant Jens Jensen. Mentioned briefly in this post back in January, Jens Jensen came to Chicago after the fire, in 1886, and became a very successful and celebrated landscape designer with an interest in social justice and conservation. Nicknamed “Poet of the Prairie” he is credited with designing many Chicago city parks, including Lincoln, Humboldt and Columbus, transforming parts of the city into small prairie havens.
Just this past June Chicago filmmaker Carey Lundin screened her award-winning documentary film “Jens Jensen The Living Green” at the beautiful Millennium Park Pritzker Pavilion to honor the legacy he’s left on “Paris on the Prairie.” His achievements in Chicago have provided beauty, tranquility and recreation to residents and visitors alike. You can view the trailer here.
I’m sure you can think of many other area businesses, clubs and organizations that have left a positive lasting impression our communities. When I think of this, The Danish Home’s Women’s Auxiliary comes to mind. What does Jens Jensen & The Women’s Auxiliary have in common, you ask? Both have contributed positively to the social well-being and have helped improve the quality of life for many. Jensen accomplished this with his design talents, and The Women’s Auxiliary (highlighted in this post back in March) continues to achieve this by raising funds, planning and organizing many wonderful events for Danish Home of Chicago residents.
What would we do without all of these significant Danish influences? Our lives would be less lovely in many ways, that’s for sure!