The Great Chicago Fire of 1871
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was one of the worst disasters to hit an American city in the nation's history. But it takes more than a giant fire to bring Chicago down. Get the details of how the fire started and how the city not only rebounded, but surged in the aftermath of the Great Fire.
Before the fire...
In the fall of 1871, Chicago was one of the largest and most powerful industrial cities in the United States. It housed more than 334,000 residents and formed one of the main points of connection in the newly laid railroad, which connected the flourishing East Coast to the West. More than two thirds of Chicago's houses, stores, barns, and warehouses were made of wood, and thanks to the expanding population, they were crammed close together.
The previous summer had been one of the driest on record, as Chicago received only an inch of rain. Conditions were perfect for a fire, and on the evening of Oct. 8, a spark ignited a monumental blaze that consumed a third of the city.
2 days later...
By the time an overdue rainfall ended the fire on the morning of the 10th, 17,500 buildings, including the pumping station that supplied firefighters with water, had been lost to the flames. Seventy-three miles of street were now charred and blistered, and as many as 300 people died. In only a few days, the city had lost $196,000,000 in buildings and property. More than 98,000 residents were left without homes. It took several days for sections of the city to cool down enough that rescue crews and city inspectors could venture in.
The dry heat and closely-built wooden structures provided the perfect setting for a conflagration, but there were also a number of other factors that contributed to the Great Chicago Fire. Chicago employed fewer than 200 firefighters, despite earlier requests for more men and fire hydrants. A strong wind on the evening of the 9th drove the rising flames directly into the heart of the city. Heated drafts made the fire split, and sparks from a church tower carried the fire over the Chicago River to continue its rampage on the opposite bank. Streets, sidewalks, and bridges were all made of wood, and all of them helped carry the fire further throughout the city.
It all started with...a cow? Maybe...
The fire began in the barn of the O'Leary family on DeKoven Street, although exactly what started the blaze isn't known. A rumor began that a cow belonging to Catherine O'Leary kicked over a lantern while being milked, thus causing the fire. Irish immigrants, already relegated to poor neighborhoods and low-paying jobs, were an easy target for the media. In the days after the fire, reporters hounded the O'Leary family, calling Catherine "shiftless and worthless."
The Chicago Times even suggested that she had set the fire deliberately as revenge against the bigotry of the city. The story was even transformed into a song called "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow." Despite no solid evidence to support the story, Chicago continued to view her as the cause of the fire until 1997, when she and her cow were officially absolved of all blame.
It takes more than a big fire to bring Chicago down.
While the fire did extensive damage to the city, it left the stockyards, packing plants, and railway operational. Shelters were established for the newly homeless while houses were rebuilt. Although the local government could not contribute much to the reconstruction of the city, financial aid poured in from all around the world. New fire regulations required that buildings be constructed from brick or stone. Many smaller businesses couldn't afford these expensive materials, and some larger businesses ignored the order. A second fire in 1874, while smaller than the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, led to the introduction of terra cotta as a cost-effective fireproof material. Commercial and residential areas were more clearly defined, and the downtown area doubled in size. By 1900, the population had quintupled, and today, Chicago holds the title of the third largest city in the United States.
For more information on the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, explore the following links:
- A Bird's Eye View of Pre-Fire Chicago
- Statistics of the Chicago Fire
- Domestic and Respectable: Suburbanization and Social Control After the Great Chicago Fire
- Hidden Truths: Chicago Fire Accounts
- The Irish of Chicago
- Seeing With Their Investments, Minds, and Hearts: Relief After the Great Chicago Fire (PDF)
- The Great Fire
- Photograph of Chicago After the Great Fire
- The Chicago Fire: Oct. 8-10, 1871 (PDF)
- The Great Chicago Fire
- After the Chicago Fire
- The Great Chicago Fire and Lincoln Park
- What (or Who) Caused the Great Chicago Fire?
- The Chicago Fire of 1871 and the Great Rebuilding
- Eyewitness Account of the Great Chicago Fire
- Maps: Chicago on Fire
- We Still Don't Know How the Great Chicago Fire Started
- The Chicago Fire and Mrs. O'Leary
- Important Dates of the Chicago Fire
- What if the Great Chicago Fire Never Happened?
- O'Leary's House (PDF)
- Release All Prisoners: A Mayor's Order
- Lessons From the Chicago Fire: A Historic Disaster Offers Lessons About Modern Charity
- The Great Chicago Fire: A Picture from the Past
- A Close Reading of "The Great Fire" by Jim Murphy (PDF)
- Great Chicago Fire: Free Audiobook
- Primary Source Analysis: Chicago Fire of 1871 (PDF)
- Historical Background of Post-Fire Chicago