The Great Chicago Fire, online

Chicago in flames lithograph
“Chicago in Flames,” Union Publishing Company, lithograph, 1872. Source.

One of the best parts about being a student in Chicago (speaking as one!) is the rich history to explore around every corner. Integrating local history with global access, the Great Chicago Fire has its own website, created by scholars at the Chicago History Museum and at Northwestern University.

The website offers a historical experience, particularly for students through its many resources and strengths:

Image from the film “In Old Chicago,” clip available on the website.
  • It offers a multimedia experience. This goes beyond images of the Great Chicago Fire. The researchers also included songs and video clips from the 1937 film “In Old Chicago,” an imaginative retelling of the story, as well as a 1955 news reel video entitled “City Gets Revenge on Mrs. O’Leary.”
  • It’s a good resource for either beginners or those looking for a deep dive. With overviews and plenty of images on most pages, a beginner would easily get a sense of what happened during the Great Chicago Fire by spending just a few minutes on the website. Someone looking for more in-depth information would find enough resources to get them started and point them in the right direction.
The official app has a rating of 4.8 stars but only five reviews. A small but loyal following!
  • It invites the audience to bring history into the “real world” The website highlights several walking tours for local folks and visitors to explore, with each stop cleverly marked by a fire icon. This is probably the project’s strongest feature. It even provides a link to an app with the same walking tour for mobile users. Although it is a paid app, the $.99 price tag isn’t prohibitive to most users.
  • It’s a great teaching tool for teachers in Chicago and around the world, lessons about the Chicago Fire can come to life with the broad array of materials available.
  • It’s powered by two well-respected and local institutions. The Chicago History Museum and Northwestern University are both well-known in the area and around the country, and have access to local archives. They have made materials available digitally that otherwise would have been inaccessible for the majority of people.

The website has a few drawbacks as well, that take away from the user experience:

  • It was last updated in 2011. It’s not that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, but it was before mobile devices were as prevalent as they are today. The website looks fine, if a little dated, on a desktop, but it becomes harder to navigate on mobile. The most important mobile feature, the tour, does feature prominently in the app, however.
  • It seems to be an archived version of an old website. I found a few dead links and references to pages that no longer exist.
  • Screen Shot 2018-09-17 at 5.33.32 PM
  • Typing something into the search bar and hitting enter gets you to this page–not even on the same website + confusing descriptions under each link.
  • The search interface is not user-friendly or intuitive. This is perhaps the biggest drawback. Besides taking one of the walking tours, searching for something specific is one of the only ways for the audience to engage with the material actively rather than passively consuming. That the search interface does not provide an intuitive result is a missed opportunity.

As a history resource, the Great Chicago Fire website is excellent. It provides a starting point for scholars of any age or experience level who want to learn more about the Fire. As a public history resource, the website falls a little flat, although it would be an effective accompaniment to a Great Chicago Fire exhibit. But as a stand-alone, it is didactic in nature, and seems to have a hard time escaping an academic tone. As a digital humanities project, there is a lot of room for growth. The project seemed to be moving in the right direction with the app and digitized multimedia materials. But if the project moves forward again, there is still plenty to do–even beyond my critiques, I’m sure.


2 Replies to “The Great Chicago Fire, online”

  1. Fascinating, I haven’t found many sites like this with a mobile app. The use of multimedia, too, reminds me of the pedagogical approach of the CHM. The issue of durability, the longevity of these sites, seems to be very common from the sites I’ve seen, mine included. I wonder if it is a problem with the institutions creating these sources of simply working towards a finished product without realizing that they need to constantly update them. It seems like a lack of resources or care, to modern digital native students like us, but that’s just my opinion.


    1. Yes! I think too many of these kinds of projects are seen as “done” once they’re published and out there. Of course, I realize that many of these kinds of projects are only funded for a fixed period of time, as well. But it would be much more beneficial to view them as ongoing projects that evolve–in an ideal world, right?


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