Great Chicago Fire

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Artist's rendering of the fire, by John R. Chapin, originally printed in Harper's Weekly; the view faces northeast across the Randolph Street Bridge.

The Great Chicago Fire was a conflagration that burned from Sunday, October 8, to early Tuesday, October 10, 1871. The fire killed up to 300 people, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles (9 km2) of Chicago, Illinois, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless.[1] Though the fire was one of the largest U.S. disasters of the 19th century, and destroyed much of the city's central business district, Chicago was rebuilt and continued to grow as one of the most populous and economically important American cities. The same night the fire broke out, an even deadlier fire annihilated Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and other villages and towns north of Green Bay, Wisconsin.


1868 map of Chicago, highlighting the area destroyed by the fire (location of O'Leary's barn indicated by red dot).

The fire started at about 9:00 p.m. on October 8, in or around a small barn belonging to the O'Leary family that bordered the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street.[2] The shed next to the barn was the first building to be consumed by the fire, but city officials never determined the exact cause of the blaze.[3] There has, however, been much speculation over the years. The most popular tale blames Mrs. O'Leary's cow; others state that a group of men were gambling inside the barn and knocked over a lantern. Still other speculation suggests that the blaze was related to other fires in the Midwest that day. See Questions about the fire.

The fire's spread was aided by the city's use of wood as the predominant building material in a style called balloon frame, a drought before the fire, and strong southwest winds that carried flying embers toward the heart of the city. More than two thirds of the structures in Chicago at the time of the fire were made entirely of wood. Most houses and buildings were topped with highly flammable tar or shingle roofs. All the city's sidewalks and many roads were made of wood.[4] Compounding this problem, Chicago had only received an inch of rain from July 4 to October 9 causing severe drought conditions.[5]

In 1871, the Chicago Fire Department had 185 firefighters with just 17 horse-drawn steam engines to protect the entire city.[6] The initial response by the fire department was quick, but due to an error by the watchman, Matthias Schaffer, the firefighters were sent to the wrong place, allowing the fire to grow unchecked.[6] An alarm sent from the area near the fire also failed to register at the courthouse where the fire watchmen were. Also, the firefighters were tired from having fought numerous small fires and one large fire in the week before.[7] These factors combined to turn a small barn fire into a conflagration.

Spread of the blaze

Aftermath of the fire, corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets, 1871

When firefighters finally arrived at DeKoven Street, the fire had grown and spread to neighboring buildings and was progressing towards the central business district. Firefighters had hoped that the South Branch of the Chicago River and an area that had previously thoroughly burned would act as a natural firebreak.[8] All along the river, however, were lumber yards, warehouses, and coal yards, and barges and numerous bridges across the river. As the fire grew, the southwest wind intensified and became superheated, causing structures to catch fire from the heat and from burning debris blown by the wind. Around 11:30 p.m., flaming debris blew across the river and landed on roofs and the South Side Gas Works.[9]

With the fire across the river and moving rapidly towards the heart of the city, panic set in. About this time, Mayor Roswell B. Mason sent message to nearby towns asking for help. When the courthouse caught fire, he ordered the building to be evacuated and the prisoners jailed in the basement to be released. At 2:20 a.m. on the 9th, the cupola of the courthouse collapsed, sending the great bell crashing down.[10] Some witnesses reported hearing the sound from a mile away.

As more buildings succumbed to the flames, a major contributing factor to the fire’s spread was a meteorological phenomenon known as a fire whirl.[11] As overheated air rises, it comes into contact with cooler air and begins to spin creating a tornado-like effect. These fire whirls are likely what drove flaming debris so high and so far. Such debris was blown across the main branch of the Chicago River to a railroad car carrying kerosene.[12] The fire had jumped the river a second time and was now raging across the city’s north side.

Despite the fire spreading and growing rapidly, the city's firefighters continued to battle the blaze. A short time after the fire jumped the river, a burning piece of timber lodged on the roof of the city’s waterworks. Within minutes, the interior of the building was engulfed in flames and the building was destroyed. With it, the city’s water mains went dry and the city was helpless.[13] The fire burned unchecked from building to building, block to block.

Finally, late into the evening of the 9th, it started to rain, but the fire had already started to burn itself out. The fire had spread to the sparsely populated areas of the north side, having consumed the densely populated areas thoroughly.[14]


The sculpture on the site of the origin of the fire, with the Chicago Fire Academy in the background
A marker commemorating the fire outside the Chicago Fire Academy
File:Municipal Flag of Chicago.svg
Municipal Flag of Chicago. The second star commemorates the fire.[15]
PROCLAMATION, Chicago History Museum
Relief for the destitute, Chicago History Museum
To the Homeless of the Chicago Fire, Chicago History Museum

Once the fire had ended, the smoldering remains were still too hot for a survey of the damage to be completed for many days. Eventually the city determined that the fire destroyed an area about four miles (6 km) long and averaging 3/4 mile (1 km) wide, encompassing more than 2,000 acres (8.1 km2).[16] Destroyed were more than 73 miles (117 km) of roads, 120 miles (190 km) of sidewalk, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings, and $222 million in property—about a third of the city's valuation (more than $4 billion in 2015 dollars[17]). Of the 300,000 inhabitants, 100,000 were left homeless. 120 bodies were recovered, but the death toll may have been as high as 300. The county coroner speculated that an accurate count was impossible as some victims may have drowned or had been incinerated leaving no remains.

In the days and weeks following the fire, monetary donations flowed into Chicago from around the country and foreign cities, along with donations of food, clothing, and other goods. These donations came from individuals, corporations, and cities. New York City gave $450,000 along with clothing and provisions, St. Louis gave $300,000, and the Common Council of London gave 1,000 Guineas as well as ₤7,000 from private donations.[18] Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Buffalo, all commercial rivals, donated hundreds and thousands of dollars. Milwaukee, along with other nearby cities, helped by sending fire-fighting equipment. Additionally, food, clothing and books were brought by train from all over the continent.[19] Mayor Mason placed the Chicago Relief and Aid Society in charge of the city’s relief efforts.[20]

Operating from the First Congregational Church, city officials and the Aldermen began taking steps to preserve order in the city. Price fixing was a key concern. In one ordinance, the city set the price of bread at 8¢ for a 12-ounce loaf.[21] Public buildings were opened as places of refuge, and saloons closed at 9 in the evening for the week following the fire.

The fire also led to questions about the developments in the United States. Due to Chicago’s rapid expansion at this time, the fire led to Americans reflecting on industrialization. The religious point of view said that Americans should return to a more old-fashioned way of life, and that the fire was caused by people ignoring morality. Many Americans on the other hand believed that a lesson that should be learned from the fire was that cities needed to improve their building techniques. Frederick Law Olmsted attributed this to Chicago’s style of building:

"Chicago had a weakness for “big things,” and liked to think that it was outbuilding New York. It did a great deal of commercial advertising in its house-tops. The faults of construction as well as of art in its great showy buildings must have been numerous. Their walls were thin, and were overweighted with gross and coarse misornamentation."

Olmsted also believed that with brick walls and disciplined firemen and police, the damage caused and deaths would have been much less.[22]

Almost immediately, the city began to rewrite its fire standards, spurred by the efforts of leading insurance executives and fire prevention reformers such as Arthur C. Ducat and others. Chicago soon developed one of the country's leading fire fighting forces.

Land speculators, such as Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, and business owners quickly set about rebuilding the city. The first load of lumber for rebuilding was delivered the day the last burning building was extinguished. By the World's Columbian Exposition 22 years later, Chicago hosted more than 21 million visitors. The Palmer House hotel burned to the ground in the fire 13 days after its grand opening. Its developer Potter Palmer secured a loan and rebuilt the hotel to higher standards across the street from the original, proclaiming it to be "The World's First Fireproof Building".

In 1956, the remaining structures on the original O'Leary property at 558 W. DeKoven Street were torn down for construction of the Chicago Fire Academy, a training facility for Chicago firefighters. A bronze sculpture of stylized flames, entitled Pillar of Fire by sculptor Egon Weiner, was erected on the point of origin in 1961.[23]

Questions about the fire

1871 illustration from Harper's Magazine depicting Mrs. O'Leary milking the cow.

Almost from the moment the fire broke out, various theories about its cause began to circulate.

The most popular and enduring legend maintains that the fire began in the O'Leary barn, as Mrs. O’Leary was milking her cow. The cow kicked over a lantern (or an oil lamp in some versions), setting fire to the barn. The O'Leary family denied this, stating that they were in bed before the fire started, but stories of the cow began to spread across the city. Catherine O'Leary seemed the perfect scapegoat: she was a poor, Irish Catholic immigrant. During the latter half of the 19th century, anti-Irish sentiment was strong throughout the United States and in Chicago. This was intensified as a result of the growing political power of the city's Irish population.[24] This story was circulating in Chicago even before the flames had died out, and it was noted in the Chicago Tribune's first post-fire issue. In 1893 the reporter Michael Ahern retracted the "cow-and-lantern" story, admitting it was fabricated, but even his confession was unable to put the legend to rest.[25] Although the O'Learys were never officially charged with starting the fire, the story became so engrained in local lore that Chicago's city council officially exonerated them—and the cow—in 1997.[26]

Chicago Tribune editorial

Amateur historian Richard Bales has suggested the fire started when Daniel "Pegleg" Sullivan, who first reported the fire, ignited hay in the barn while trying to steal milk.[27] Part of Bales' evidence includes an account by Sullivan who claimed in an inquiry before the Fire Department of Chicago on November 25, 1871 that he saw the fire coming through the side of the barn and ran across DeKoven Street to free the animals from the barn, one of which included a cow owned by Sullivan's mother.[28] Bales' account does not have consensus. The Chicago Public Library staff criticized his account in their web page on the fire.[29] Despite this, the Chicago city council was convinced of Bales' argument and stated that the actions of Sullivan on that day should be scrutinized after the O'Learys were exonerated in 1997.[26][30]

Anthony DeBartolo reported evidence in the Chicago Tribune suggesting that Louis M. Cohn may have started the fire during a craps game.[31] According to Cohn, on the night of the fire, he was gambling in the O'Learys' barn with one of their sons and some other neighborhood boys. When Mrs. O'Leary came out to the barn to chase the kids away at around 9:00, they knocked over a lantern in their flight, although Cohn states that he paused long enough to scoop up the money. Following his death in 1942, Cohn bequeathed $35,000 which was assigned by his executors to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The bequest was given to the school on September 28, 1944, along with his confession.

An alternative theory, first suggested in 1882 by Ignatius L. Donnelly in Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, is that the fire was caused by a meteor shower. At a 2004 conference of the Aerospace Corporation and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, engineer and physicist Robert Wood suggested that the fire began when Biela's Comet broke up over the Midwest. That four large fires took place, all on the same day, all on the shores of Lake Michigan (see Related Events), suggests a common root cause. Eyewitnesses reported sighting spontaneous ignitions, lack of smoke, "balls of fire" falling from the sky, and blue flames. According to Wood, these accounts suggest that the fires were caused by the methane that is commonly found in comets.[32]

But as meteorites are not known to start or spread fires and are cool to the touch after reaching the ground, this theory has not found favor in the scientific community.[33][34] A common cause for the fires in the Midwest can be found in the fact that the area had suffered through a tinder-dry summer, so that winds from the front that moved in that evening were capable of generating rapidly expanding blazes from available ignition sources, which were plentiful in the region.[35][36] Methane-air mixtures become flammable only when the methane concentration exceeds 5%, at which point the mixtures also become explosive.[37][38] Methane gas is lighter than air and thus does not accumulate near the ground;[38] any localized pockets of methane in the open air would rapidly dissipate. Moreover, if a fragment of an icy comet were to strike the Earth, the most likely outcome, due to the low tensile strength of such bodies, would be for it to disintegrate in the upper atmosphere, leading to an air burst explosion analogous to that of the Tunguska event.[39]

Surviving structures

The following structures are the only structures from the burnt district still standing:

St. Michael's Church and the Pumping Station were both gutted in the fire, but their exteriors survived, and the buildings were rebuilt using the surviving walls. Additionally, though the inhabitable portions of the building were destroyed, the bell tower of St. James Cathedral survived the fire and was incorporated into the rebuilt church. The stones near the top of the tower are still blackened from the soot and smoke. A couple of wooden cottages on North Cleveland Avenue also survived the blaze.[40]

Related events

On that hot, dry, and windy autumn day, three other major fires occurred along the shores of Lake Michigan at the same time as the Great Chicago Fire. Some 250 miles (400 km) to the north, the Peshtigo Fire consumed the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, along with a dozen other villages. It killed 1,200 to 2,500 people and charred approximately 1.5 million acres (6,000 km²). The Peshtigo Fire remains the deadliest in American history but the remoteness of the region meant it was little noticed at the time, due to the fact that one of the first things that burned were the telegraph lines to Green Bay.[41]

Across the lake to the east, the town of Holland, Michigan, and other nearby areas burned to the ground.[42] Some 100 miles (160 km) to the north of Holland, the lumbering community of Manistee also went up in flames[43] in what became known as The Great Michigan Fire.[42]

Farther east, along the shore of Lake Huron, the Port Huron Fire swept through Port Huron, Michigan and much of Michigan's "Thumb". On October 9, 1871, a fire swept through the city of Urbana, Illinois, 140 miles (230 km) south of Chicago, destroying portions of its downtown area.[44] Windsor, Ontario, likewise burned on October 12.[45]

The city of Singapore, Michigan, provided a large portion of the lumber to rebuild Chicago. As a result, the area was so heavily deforested that the land deteriorated into barren sand dunes and the town had to be abandoned.[46]

In popular culture

See also

Panorama of Chicago after the 1871 Fire

Image attributed to Nick Bernhard.


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Further reading

  • Bales, Richard F. (2002). The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow. Jefferson, NC.: McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-1424-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Chicago and the Great ConflagrationElias Colbert and Everett Chamberlin, 1871, 528 pp.
  • "Who Caused the Great Chicago Fire? A Possible Deathbed Confession" – by Anthony DeBartolo, Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1997 and "Odds Improve That a Hot Game of Craps in Mrs. O'Leary's Barn Touched Off Chicago Fire" – by Anthony DeBartolo, Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1998
  • "History of the Great Fires in Chicago and the West". – Rev. Edgar J. Goodspeed, D.D., 677 pp.
  • Morris, Roy, Jr., Sheridan: The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan, Crown Publishing, 1992, ISBN 0-517-58070-5.
  • "People & Events: The Great Fire of 1871". The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Website. Retrieved September 3, 2004.
  • The Great ConflagrationJames W. Sheahan and George P. Upton, 1871, 458 pp.
  • Shaw, William B. (October 5, 1921). "The Chicago Fire – Fifty Years After". The Outlook. 129: 176–178. Retrieved 2009-07-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Smith, Carl (1995). Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-76416-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • "Mrs. O'Leary's Comet: Cosmic Causes of the Great Chicago Fire" by Mel Waskin (Jan 1985)

External links

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