THE GREAT CHICAGO FIRE, A CHICAGO SPECIAL Special Premiering Friday, October 9 at 8:00 pm on WTTW

How tensions around class and immigration affected the city’s response and revival

For immediate release
Chicago, IL - September 10, 2020

This fall, WTTW tells the dramatic story of a defining and prescient moment in Chicago history – the Great Fire of 1871 – when Chicagoans faced destruction, rebuilt, and prepared the city for a thriving future. THE GREAT CHICAGO FIRE, a one-hour Chicago Stories special, premieres on Friday, October 9 at 8:00 pm, the 149th anniversary of the fire, on all WTTW platforms with narration by Chicagoan and Lookingglass Theatre Company ensemble member Anthony Fleming III. 

On October 10, 1871, the citizens of Chicago awoke to an unrecognizable landscape: where 48 hours earlier there had been a vibrant city of ornate civic buildings, grand hotels, and cultural institutions, now there was nothing but a smoking pile of rubble stretched for miles on end. Many wondered: could the city possibly recover? And how did tensions between the city’s elites and the immigrant poor lead to the wrong person being wrongfully accused of starting the blaze?

THE GREAT CHICAGO FIRE brings to life this seismic event as never before, using vivid animations, elaborate re-creations, and interviews with noted historians and the descendants of eyewitnesses. The story unfolds through the eyes of people who lived through the fire, including Chicago Tribune publisher William Bross, Mayor Roswell B. Mason, a heroic Board of Trade custodian (and former slave) Joseph Hudlin, and a successful businesswoman named Catherine O’Leary.

The companion website will explore the causes, progression, and lasting repercussions of the fire, including how a terrible fire the previous day further depleted a woefully understaffed fire department. Animations, photos, illustrations, and interviews explore the connections between four eyewitnesses and themes that emerge from their stories: What was life like for Irish immigrants like Catherine O’Leary? How did the city rebuild? What buildings and relics still show the scars of the fire today? And what allowed Chicago to become a tinderbox waiting to catch fire in the first place? Video extras tour "11 Buildings that Survived the Great Chicago Fire" and "11 Objects that Survived the Great Chicago Fire."

“This is the time to tell this important story of adversity, strength, and optimism,” said CHICAGO STORIES Executive Producer Dan Protess. “The tensions around class, race, and immigration that surrounded the fire resonate in our present moment. And as with our current crisis -- the coronavirus pandemic -- the fire disproportionately affected marginalized communities.”

“With the CHICAGO STORIES series, we are staying true to our mission -- to produce and present trusted, best-in-class content fueled by a distinctly Chicago sensibility,” said WTTW President & CEO Sandra Cordova Micek. “The story of the great Chicago fire shows Chicagoans turning a tragedy into opportunity as they recovered and transformed into a world-class city.”

CHICAGO STORIES is an original documentary series from WTTW uncovering Chicago’s fascinating history. Each story presents an entertaining and intriguing tale about a person or event that shaped Chicago. The series reflects the rich diversity and breadth of human experience that shaped this great American city.

CHICAGO STORIES: THE GREAT CHICAGO FIRE is produced and written by Peter Marks. The Executive Producer is Dan Protess. Directors of Photography: Tim Boyd, Sam Rong. Editor: Scott Holoubek. Narrator: Anthony Fleming III. Voiceover actors: Donnla Hughes as Catherine O’Leary; Randall Newsome as William Bross. Animation: Casey Stockdon. Original score: Allie n Steve Mullen. Associate Producers: Yasmin Rammohan, Sean Keenehan, Jessica Martinaitis. The website is produced by Meredith Francis, designed and developed by Justin Henderson, and executive produced by Anne Gleason.

Peter Marks wrote and produced The Great Chicago Fire. With more than two decades of experience in non-fiction television, Peter’s work has appeared on PBS, A&E, History, Discovery and Travel Channel. He graduated with a degree in American history from Stanford University and earned an MFA from USC’s Graduate Screenwriting Program.

Dan Protess is the Executive Producer of Chicago Stories. He also serves as Executive Producer of FIRSTHAND, a yearly initiative exploring social issues including gun violence and poverty. Dan served as Executive Producer, Producer, and Writer of the PBS primetime history series 10 that Changed America.

WTTW is the PBS member station in Chicago, committed to creating and presenting unique media content across distinct television and digital channels – WTTW, WTTW Prime, WTTW Create, WTTW World, WTTW PBS Kids 24/7, wttw.com, and the PBS/WTTW video app. Recognized for award-winning journalism and local productions – such as Chicago Tonight; Chicago by ‘L’; Check, Please!; digital-first series FIRSTHAND, Urban Nature and Foodphiles; and national productions 10 That Changed America and Nature Cat – WTTW presents the very best in public affairs, arts and culture, nature and science, history and documentary, and children’s public media content. Connect with WTTW on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.


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Julia Maish
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(773) 509-5551