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An Eyewitness Account Of The Great Chicago Fire Festival That Wasn't

By Chuck Sudo in News on Oct 6, 2014 4:30PM

Photo credit: Ken Ilio

On Oct. 10, 1871, The Great Chicago Fire began in a barn at 137 DeKoven Street. By the time the fire was over, 300 people lost their lives and the (false) story of Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicking over a lantern to start the blaze was well on its way to becoming legend.

On Oct. 4, 2014, before an estimated crowd of 30,000 people (although my eyeball estimate was much greater), the City of Chicago and Redmoon Theatre failed to set fire to three effigies moored in the middle of the Chicago River as the denouement of the inaugural Great Chicago Fire Festival. The so-called "Grand Spectacle" turned out to be a major and costly black eye for the Emanuel administration; the project cost an estimated $2 million, $350,000 of that total was taxpayer funds.

The warning signs were hanging in the damp, chilly downtown air for all to see. I walked along Upper Wacker Drive with a friend, spying the tarp-covered "neighborhood bazaar" kiosks, their chilly attendants and passers-by. A cold front and rain Friday preceded Saturday's festivities, but it didn't deter the curious from flocking downtown to see what the hullabaloo was about.

As 8 p.m. approached and the first kayaks towing fire buoys paddled from underneath the Columbus Drive bridge, the overall sense among the crowds gathered around me was more of confusion and snark, than civic pride and spectacle. Then the ceremony began, with remarks from Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and other dignitaries and VIPS. At least, that's what I assumed happened because the Riverwalk wasn't properly amplified for people not surrounding the Michigan Avenue Bridge to hear; the cacophony was more akin to hearing the adults in "Peanuts" cartoons dressing down Charlie Brown and the gang. While the adults droned on, the kayakers towing fire pits behind them floated around the three effigies until, eventually, their flames expired.

As 8 p.m. became 8:30 and the effigies still stood waiting to be ignited, Redmoon improvised and tried to keep the crowds entertained by leading chants and shooting flames from their mini-steamboats, the only fire still on the river at that point. But it wasn't enough and the crowd slowly began to disperse, waiting for a Grand Spectacle that wasn't going to happen. Sarcasm reigned among the throng, with comments about how a cow could burn down a city 143 years ago but the city couldn't set fire to mock buildings in the modern day, either through electric or normal means. My friend and I left our perch on Columbus Drive and headed to Burger Bistro, where a gas fireplace was roaring on their outdoor patio.

Overall, the response to the lack of a fire was good-natured, with some in the crowd wondering why there wasn't a contingency plan in place because of the weather. Like many new festival launches and revamps, the city will (hopefully) learn the necessary lessons from this and improve on them next year.

Because things for the Great Chicago Fire Festival can't get much lower than they did Saturday night. This would be fitting, as the festival was to celebrate the city's rebirth after the fire. Now it has another disaster from which to recover.