The Great Chicago Fire started 150 years ago this coming Thursday. It not only destroyed almost every building in the city, but also it burned up official property records. Even today the consequences linger:
Official property deeds stored in the Cook County Courthouse were destroyed when the building went up in flames in October 1871, as were many private records kept at home.
Stored on microfilm in filing cabinets at the Cook County Court Archives and in boxes at the archives’ warehouse is a set of documents, some dating back nearly 150 years and often handwritten, called the “burnt records.” These are records of some of the attempts to reestablish property ownership after the Great Chicago Fire.
The archives estimate there were at least 1,767 burnt records cases in the decades after the fire. But details about the documents are scarce, and the exact number of cases is unknown. Many may be missing entirely.
Other property owners turned to private records. Decades before the fire, firms had begun keeping their own indexes and abstracts of land transactions. These records were saved from the fire — often dramatically, according to legends passed down through generations of abstract and title companies — and they were given legal status in Illinois courts when state legislators passed the Burnt Records Act.
The story also explains why a single grave sticks out of an industrial site on the south side.