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How Capitalism Stacks the Deck on Disaster
Posted on Apr 4, 2013
By Steve Fraser, TomDispatch
It was a story that stuck because it meshed with the ethnic and social fears and prejudices of bourgeois Chicago. Irish and German immigrants then filled up the congested warrens of that Midwestern center of industry and commerce. Their customs, religions, languages, political beliefs, and proletarian status were alien and alarming—especially because that was the year of the Paris Commune, when proletarians took over the French national capital for two months. It was an event that scared the daylights out of the “upper tendom” and broad stretches of the middle classes as well in cities and towns throughout the U.S.
Chicago’s papers were full of stories about “petroleuses,” “amazon-like women” with “long flaming hair” coursing through the streets of Paris hurling the equivalent of Molotov cocktails at the French National Guard. Could it happen here? That was the question. Impoverished immigrant workers were already raising a ruckus in mines and on railroads. Perhaps as in France, so in Chicago they would become conspirators and incendiaries. Perhaps the great fire that gutted the city was no accident. Even if it was, weren’t there those prepared to make malevolent use of it?
Rumors of secret societies, revolutionary arsonists, and mass assaults on property circulated widely by word of mouth and through the Chicago media. So Mrs. O’Leary proved an especially apt scapegoat for the conflagration, fitting perfectly the temper of the time. She was, after all, “low class” Irish at a moment when her immigrant countrymen were still despised as rustic potato eaters, bestial and good for nothing but back-breaking labor. It was also known that they were all too Catholic, notoriously fond of alcohol, and quite capable of terrorizing British landlords back home.
Less talked about was the likelier cause of the fire: namely, the unimaginably congested neighborhoods of the poor, made entirely out of wood—houses, signs, and sidewalks, too. These had for years been the sites of frequent fires (two a day in 1870). Such frail structures became kindling for the flames that would in 1871 end up leveling downtown banks, businesses, and the homes of the rich.
These fears leaped with the flames that were burning up the city, killing 3,000 and leaving 100,000 homeless, and in the days and weeks that followed they hardly subsided. Immigrant, poor, and proletarian, Chicago’s working class was held in deep moral suspicion. Believing is often seeing, so when an upper-class eyewitness looked here’s what he saw: “Vice and crime had got the first scorching. The district where the fire got firm foothold was the Alsatia of Chicago. Fleeing before it was a crowd of blear-eyed, drunken and diseased wretches, male and female, half naked, ghastly with painted cheeks cursing, uttering ribald jests.”
Relief agencies, mainly privately run, were charged with aiding only the “worthy,” and they were “deserving” of help only after close inspection of their work habits, family arrangements, home economics, drinking customs, and so on. Civil War General Phillip Sheridan established martial law and was quick to fire on suspected looters, while enforcing a curfew to keep the “twilight population” in check.
At the same time, Chicago’s business elite, its civic leaders, and a remarkable roster of first-rate architects went about reshaping downtown Chicago into a modern hub of commerce and culture that they hoped would rival New York. Real-estate speculators made a fortune, although none were known to have been shot for looting. For some, in other words, the fire functioned as a fortuitous slum clearance/urban renewal program on speed.
Angry working people marched against new restrictions on cheaper building materials, seeing them as discriminatory against labor and immigrants, as attempts to force them out of their city. They paraded to the Common Council, where they threw bricks through the windows while it dutifully passed the ordinances. For their efforts, the protesters were denounced as the “scum of the community,” “mongrel firebugs,” and likened to the Parisian communards, intent on establishing a “reign of terror.”
The fire was out but only for the time being. The fires of social insurrection were still smoldering and would flame up again and again in the streets of Chicago throughout the rest of the century.
An unnatural disaster! With a “roar like thunder,” a wall of water 60 feet high from Lake Conemaugh, believed then to be the largest artificial body of water in the world, came racing down a canyon near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, at 40 miles an hour. Everything in its path was swept away, starting with Woodvale, a company town run by the Cambria Iron Works. Johnstown itself was next as the tidal wave rushed on relentlessly drowning and destroying bridges, oil tankers, and factories. It tossed locomotives, railroad cars, and even houses into the air. It ended the lives of more than 2,200 people. Seven hundred and seventy-seven were never identified and are buried in the “Plot of the Unknown.” Johnstown has been memorialized ever since in song and story.
Was it fate as well as an especially rainy spring that did the trick in 1889? At the top of the canyon, members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, men like iron and steel magnates Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon, as well as the crème de la crème of Pittsburgh high society (the city was only 60 miles away) had long enjoyed the pleasures of that man-made lake. They had gone fishing, paddle boating, and sailing there for years. And for years, engineers kept informing the iron and steel barons that the earthen dam holding back its waters was defective. The spillway was both too small and clogged with fencing materials meant to keep the expensive sports fish stocked in the lake from escaping into a nearby river. Auxiliary discharge pipes had decayed and leaks had been routinely noticed at the base of the dam even when the weather was especially dry.
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