This Week in Disaster History:
The Great Chicago Fire

Written by Christina Ward, Staff Writer,

The summer of 1871 was hot and dry in Illinois. Only an inch and a half of rain fell on Chicago from July 4th to early October — the city was parched. Firefighters had battled countless small fires for months, and by autumn, the blazes had become commonplace. When yet another fire broke out around 9 p.m. on October 8, 1871, near the cowshed of the O'Leary family in Chicago's West Side, no one could have predicted its disastrous consequences.

According to popular legend, Mrs. Catherine O'Leary, who ran a neighborhood milk business, was milking her cow that Sunday evening when the animal kicked over a lantern in the cowshed. Historians cannot confirm the cow's role, and Mrs. O'Leary repeatedly denied the story, which seems to have first appeared in the Oct. 9, 1871 issue of the Chicago Evening Journal. Most agree, however, that the O'Leary's cowshed at 137 De Koven Street was the location of the first spark.

This artist's rendering appeared in Harper's Weekly shortly
after the fire occurred.
Image courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.

Barn fires were not unusual at that time, and most were extinguished quickly. But on this evening, due to some confusion among the city's fire watchmen, the fire department mistakenly sent a team to the wrong street, a mile away from the blaze. By the time firefighters arrived at the O'Leary's, the flames were out of control.

After racing through the West Side for several hours, the fire ignited Chicago's business district by 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 9. It went on to burn for a total of 29 hours, blazing through more than 2,000 acres. Rain began to fall on Monday night around midnight, finally extinguishing the flames.

Between 250 and 300 people were killed and 100,000 people were left homeless. More than 17,400 buildings were destroyed. Property loss was estimated at $200 million.

A City Ripe for Fire

Whether or not Mrs. O'Leary and her cow started the fire, the blame cannot be placed on a single person or incident. Several characteristics of pre-fire Chicago contributed to the disaster. According to The Great Chicago Fire Web site, a joint project of the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University, one major problem was the construction material of choice for 19th century America: wood. The city was full of it. Countless buildings were made out of or trimmed with wood; 57 miles of streets and 561 miles of sidewalk were paved with wood; lumber yards along the river contained stacks and stacks of wood; and mills and factories churned out wood products all day long.

Although the Great Chicago Fire received more worldwide attention, it was not the only devastating fire to blaze through an American town on the evening of Oct. 8, 1871 — nor was it the worst. A massive wildfire ripped through northeastern Wisconsin that same night, killing about 1,200 people, burning 1.25 million acres and causing millions of dollars in damage to property and timberland. The Peshtigo, Wis., fire remains the deadliest forest fire in U.S. history.

For more on the Great Peshtigo Fire, read this story, published last year:

Fire Danger Rating System Heats Up New Fire Policy
In addition, the Chicago Fire Department was exhausted before the fire even began. Twenty fires had occurred in the previous week, the largest of which started on Saturday night, Oct. 7 — one day earlier. Most of the department's firemen had struggled with that fire all night Saturday and through the day on Sunday. They had only hours to rest or eat before the fire broke out at the O'Leary's. Furthermore, much of their equipment, including the fire hose, was worn out and needed repair. All in all, the Chicago firefighters were wholly unprepared for the Oct. 8 catastrophe.

The elegant Palmer House was reduced to rubble.
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.

Nature didn't help. Fueled by the effects of a nearly rainless summer, the fire was driven by a strong wind that blew from the southwest, sending the flames directly toward the center of the city.

Chicago residents watched the blaze with interest at first, many peering out of buildings they thought were "fireproof," but as houses began to crumble around them, it became clear that few were safe. Families fled to the streets, racing to escape the fire. Crowds and chaos ensued.

More than 2,000 acres were burned in 29 hours.
Image courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.
Some people died when they were trapped or crushed in their homes. Others were killed while trying to escape, running across crumbling bridges and through collapsing underground tunnels. Those who did make it out of the inferno gathered together on patches of safe ground west and northwest of the city.


Even after the fire ended, Chicago remained so hot that it was two days before any real damage assessment could begin. City officials dubbed the damaged section of the city "The Burnt District," and it covered an area about four miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide. Although the fire started in the West Side, that area of the city was not the most severely burned. (The O'Leary's house, incidentally, was completely spared. The fire burned through the cowshed and avoided the main home.) The North Division was hit the worst. An estimated 13,300 of the area's 13,800 buildings went up in flames, leaving about 75,000 people homeless.

In the days following the fire, a group of city officials and prominent citizens came together to organize a recovery plan. They established a relief committee, which immediately began to distribute any donated food, supplies or money to victims. Over the coming months, about $5 million in donations would be sent to Chicago from all over the world.

Authorities also attempted to impose order amid the post-fire hysteria, but at first, nothing could stop the thieves and other criminals from taking advantage of the crippled city.

According to the Chicago Evening Journal on Oct. 11, 1871, "The city is infested with a horde of thieves, burglars and cut-throats, bent on plunder, and who will not hesitate to burn, pillage, and even murder, as opportunity may seem to offer to them to do so with safety."

Chicago Mayor Roswell B. Mason placed Lieutenant-General Philip Sheridan, a Civil War hero who had settled in Chicago, in charge of peacekeeping for the city. Sheridan pulled together policemen, soldiers and volunteers to create an impromptu military rule that patrolled the streets, arrested looters and enforced curfews.

The Chicago Relief and Aid Society took over the long-term relief effort. For more than two years, this group provided food, clothing and supplies to fire victims. The society distributed several thousand kits for basic "shelter houses," enabling families to erect their own temporary homes. Four homeless shelters also were opened. About 64,000 smallpox vaccinations were administered.

Relief groups immediately formed to help those who had lost family members or homes.
Image courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.

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