The Great Chicago Fire destroyed a major American city, making it one of the most destructive disasters of the 19th century. A Sunday night blaze in a barn quickly spread, and for approximately 30 hours the flames roared through Chicago, consuming hastily constructed neighborhoods of immigrant housing as well as the city's business district.
From the evening of October 8, 1871, until the early hours of Tuesday, October 10, 1871, Chicago was essentially defenseless against the enormous fire. Thousands of homes were reduced to cinders, along with hotels, department stores, newspapers, and government offices. At least 300 people were killed.
The cause of the fire has always been disputed. A local rumor, that Mrs. O'Leary's cow started the blaze by kicking over a lantern is probably not true. But that legend stuck in the public mind and holds fast to this day.
What is true is that the fire did start in a barn owned by the O'Leary family, and the flames, whipped by strong winds, quickly moved onward from that point.
A Long Summer Drought
The summer of 1871 was very hot, and the city of Chicago suffered under a brutal drought. From early July to the outbreak of the fire in October less than three inches of rain fell on the city, and most of that was in brief showers.
The heat and lack of sustained rainfall put the city in a precarious position as Chicago consisted almost entirely of wooden structures. Lumber was plentiful and cheap in the American Midwest in the mid-1800s, and Chicago was essentially built of timber.
Construction regulations and fire codes were widely ignored. Large sections of the city housed poor immigrants in shabbily constructed shanties, and even the houses of more prosperous citizens tended to be made of wood.
A sprawling city virtually made of wood drying out in a prolonged drought inspired fears at the time. In early September, a month before the fire, the city's most prominent newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, criticized the city for being made of “firetraps,” adding that many structures were “all sham and shingles.”
Part of the problem was that Chicago had grown quickly and had not endured a history of fires. New York City, for instance, which had undergone its own great fire in 1835, had learned to enforce building and fire codes.
The Fire Began in O'Leary's Barn
On the night before the great fire, another major fire broke out that was battled by all the city's fire companies. When that blaze was brought under control it seemed that Chicago had been saved from a major disaster.
And then on Sunday night, October 8, 1871, a fire was spotted in a barn owned by an Irish immigrant family named O'Leary. Alarms were sounded, and a fire company which had just returned from battling the previous night's fire responded.
There was considerable confusion in dispatching other fire companies, and valuable time was lost. Perhaps the fire at the O'Leary barn could have been contained if the first company responding had not been exhausted, or if other companies had been dispatched to the correct location.
Within a half-hour of the first reports of the fire at O'Leary's barn, the fire had spread to nearby barns and sheds, and then to a church, which was quickly consumed in flame. At that point, there was no hope of controlling the inferno, and the fire began its destructive march northward toward the heart of Chicago.
The legend took hold that the fire had started when a cow being milked by Mrs. O'Leary had kicked over a kerosene lantern, igniting hay in the O'Leary barn. Years later a newspaper reporter admitted to having made up that story, but to this day the legend of Mrs. O'Leary's cow endures.
The Fire Spread
The conditions were perfect for the fire to spread, and once it went beyond the immediate neighborhood of O'Leary's barn it accelerated quickly. Burning embers landed on furniture factories and grain storage elevators, and soon the blaze began to consume everything in its path.
Fire companies tried their best to contain the fire, but when the city's waterworks were destroyed the battle was over. The only response to the fire was to try to flee, and tens of thousands of Chicago's citizens did. It has been estimated that a quarter of the city's approximately 330,000 residents took to the streets, carrying what they could in a mad panic.
A massive wall of flame 100 feet high advanced through city blocks. Survivors told harrowing stories of strong winds pushed by the fire-spewing burning embers so that it looked as if it was raining fire.
By the time the sun rose on Monday morning, large parts of Chicago were already burned to the ground. Wooden buildings had simply disappeared into piles of ash. Sturdier buildings of brick or stone were charred ruins.
The fire burned throughout Monday. The inferno was finally dying out when the rain began on Monday evening, finally extinguishing the last of the flames in the early hours of Tuesday.
The Aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire
The wall of flame that destroyed the center of Chicago leveled a corridor about four miles long and more than a mile wide.
The damage to the city was nearly impossible to comprehend. Virtually all government buildings were burned to the ground, as were the newspapers, hotels, and any just about any major business.
There were stories that many priceless documents, including letters of Abraham Lincoln, were lost in the fire. And it's believed that original negatives of classic portraits of Lincoln taken by Chicago photographer Alexander Hesler were lost.
Approximately 120 bodies were recovered, but it was estimated that more than 300 people died. It's believed that many bodies were entirely consumed by the intense heat.
The cost of destroyed property was estimated at $190 million. More than 17,000 buildings were destroyed, and more than 100,000 people were left homeless.
News of the fire traveled quickly by telegraph, and within days newspaper artists and photographers descended upon the city, recording the massive scenes of destruction.
Chicago Was Rebuilt After the Great Fire
Relief efforts were mounted, and the US Army took control of the city, placing it under martial law. Cities in the east sent contributions, and even President Ulysses S. Grant sent $1,000 from his personal funds to the relief effort.
While the Great Chicago Fire was one of the major disasters of the 19th century and a profound blow to the city, the city was rebuilt fairly quickly. And with the rebuilding came better construction and much stricter fire codes. Indeed, the bitter lessons of Chicago's destruction affected how other cities were managed.
And while the story of Mrs. O'Leary and her cow persists, the real culprits were simply a long summer drought and a sprawling city built of wood.
- Carson, Thomas and Mary R. Bonk. "Chicago Fire of 1871." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History: Vol.1. Detroit: Gale, 1999. 158-160. Gale Virtual Reference Library.