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, killing hundreds and destroying about 3.3 square miles (9 km2) in Chicago, Illinois.[1] Though the fire was one of the largest U.S. disasters of the 19th century, Chicago was rebuilt and continued to grow as one of the most populous and economically important American cities.

The fire began the same day as several other fires destroyed towns and forests in Wisconsin and Michigan.


1868 map of Chicago, highlighting the area destroyed by the fire.

The fire started at about 21:00 on Sunday, October 8, in or around a small barn that bordered the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street.[2] The traditional account of the origin of the fire is that it was started by a cow kicking over a lantern in the barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O'Leary. In 1893, Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter who wrote the O'Leary account, admitted he had made it up as colorful copy.[3] The barn was the first building to be consumed by the fire, but the official report could not determine the exact cause.[4]

There has been speculation as to whether the cause of the fire was related to other fires that began the same day. See Questions about the fire.

The fire's spread was aided by the city's use of wood as the predominant building material, a drought prior to the fire, and strong winds from the southwest that carried flying embers toward the heart of the city. More than ⅔ 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. Most Chicago architects modeled wooden building exteriors after another material using ornate, decorative carvings. All the city's sidewalks and roads were also made completely out of wood.[5] The city did not react quickly enough, and at first, residents were not concerned about it, not realizing the high risk of conditions. The firefighters were tired from having fought a fire the day before.[6] The firefighters fought the flames through the entire day and became exhausted. As the fire jumped to a nearby neighborhood, it began to destroy mansions, houses and apartments, most made of wood and dried out from the drought. After two days of the fire burning out of control, rain helped douse the remaining fire. City officials estimated that more than 300 people died in the fire and more than 100,000 were left homeless. Three point three square miles were destroyed by the fire.[citation needed]

Spread of the blaze[edit]

Aftermath of the fire, corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets, 1871
Chicago Water Tower

The city's fire department received the first alarm when a fire alarm was pulled at a pharmacy at 21:40, while the fire was still small. When the blaze got bigger, the guard realized that there actually was a new fire and sent firefighters, but in the wrong direction.[citation needed]

Soon the fire had spread to neighboring frame houses and sheds. Superheated winds drove flaming brands northeastward.[citation needed]

When the fire engulfed a tall church west of the Chicago River, the flames crossed the south branch of the river. Various factors contributed to the spread, notably the firewood in the closely packed wooden buildings, ships lining the river, the city's elevated wood-plank sidewalks and roads, and the commercial lumber and coal yards along the river. The size of the blaze generated extremely strong winds and heat, which ignited rooftops far ahead of the actual flames.[citation needed]

The attempts to stop the fire were unsuccessful. The mayor had even called surrounding cities for help, but by that point the fire was simply too large to contain. When the fire destroyed the waterworks, just north of the Chicago River, the city's water supply was completely cut off, and the firefighters were forced to give up.[citation needed]

As the fire raged through the central business district, it destroyed hotels, department stores, Chicago's City Hall, the opera house and theaters, churches, and printing plants. The fire continued spreading northward, driving fleeing residents across bridges on the Chicago River. There was mass panic as the blaze jumped the river's main stem and continued burning through homes and mansions on the city's north side. Residents fled into Lincoln Park and to the shores of Lake Michigan, where thousands sought refuge from the flames.[citation needed]

Philip Sheridan, a noted Union general in the American Civil War, was present during the fire and coordinated military relief efforts. The mayor, to calm the panic, placed the city under martial law, and issued a proclamation placing Sheridan in charge. As there were no widespread disturbances, martial law was lifted within a few days. Although Sheridan's personal residence was spared, all of his professional and personal papers were destroyed.[7]

The fire finally burned itself out, aided by diminishing winds and a light drizzle that began falling late on Monday night. From its origin at the O'Leary property, it had burned a path of nearly complete destruction of some 34 blocks to Fullerton Avenue on the north side.[citation needed]


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
Municipal Flag of Chicago. The second star commemorates the fire.[8]

Once the fire had ended, the smoldering remains were still too hot for a survey of the damage to be completed for 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 (810 ha). 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. Of the 300,000 inhabitants, 100,000 were left homeless. Between two and three million books were destroyed from private library collections.[9] The fire was said by The Chicago Daily Tribune to have been so fierce that it surpassed the damage done by Napoleon's siege of Moscow in 1812.[10] Some buildings did survive the fire, such as the then-new Chicago Water Tower, one of five public buildings and a bungalow that survived within the disaster zone. The O'Leary home and Holy Family Church, their parish church, were both saved by shifts in the wind.

The Chicago Cubs home field, Union Base-Ball Grounds, located at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue, was completely destroyed in the fire. The wooden ballpark was right in the firestorm's path, and the grounds and all the team's equipment and uniforms were consumed. The team finished out the last few weeks of the 1871 season on the road in borrowed uniforms. They would not play again until 1874.

After the fire, the city recovered 125 bodies. Final estimates of the fatalities ranged from 200–300, considered a small number for such a large fire. In later years, other disasters would claim many more lives: at least 605 died in the Iroquois Theater Fire in 1903; and, in 1915, 835 died in the sinking of the excursion boat Eastland in the Chicago River. The Great Chicago Fire remains Chicago's best-known disaster, both for the magnitude of the destruction and the city's recovery and growth.

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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] Public buildings were opened as places of refuge, and saloons closed at 9 in the evening for the week following the fire. Mayor Roswell B. Mason directed the Chicago Relief and Aid Society to assume responsibility for the relief work in the city.[14]

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 believes that with brick walls and disciplined firemen and police, the damage caused and deaths would have been much less.[15]

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. Donations of money, food, clothing and furnishings arrived quickly from across the nation. 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.[16]

Questions about the fire[edit]

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

Catherine O'Leary seemed the perfect scapegoat: she was an Irish Catholic immigrant, who were unpopular because of their high numbers in the city.[clarification needed] 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.[17]

The cow and fire story is the story which puts the blame on Catherine O’Leary; it is explained by Richard F. Bales. A fire broke out in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary and began to spread through Chicago. As the fire was still burning the fingers began to be pointed at Mrs. O’Leary and her cow. The story states that the fire began as Mrs. O’Leary was milking a cow and the cow kicked over the lamp which began the fire by setting the straw on fire which set the barn on fire . This was denied by the O’Leary household stating that they were already in bed before the fire started, but stories of the cow began to spread across the city. O’Leary was later exonerated.[18]

Chicago Tribune editorial

The 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.[19] Anthony DeBartolo reported evidence in the Chicago Tribune suggesting that Louis M. Cohn may have started the fire during a craps game.

Bales' account does not have consensus. The Chicago Public Library staff criticized his account in their web page on the fire.[20]

An alternative theory, first suggested in 1882 by Ignatius L. Donnelly in Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, is that the Great Chicago 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.[21]

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.[22][23] 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.[24][25] Methane-air mixtures become flammable only when the methane concentration exceeds 5%, at which point the mixtures also become explosive.[26][27] Methane gas is lighter than air and thus does not accumulate near the ground;[27] 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.[28]

Surviving structures[edit]

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.

Related events[edit]

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.[29]

Across the lake to the east, the town of Holland, Michigan, and other nearby areas burned to the ground.[30] Some 100 miles (160 km) to the north of Holland, the lumbering community of Manistee also went up in flames[31] in what became known as The Great Michigan Fire.[30]

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.[32] Windsor, Ontario, likewise burned on October 12.[33]

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.[citation needed]

Newspaper Clipping With Similar Fires

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


Panorama of Chicago after the 1871 Fire. Image attributed to George N. Barnard.


  1. ^ Bales, Richard (2004). "What do we know about the Great Chicago Fire?". Retrieved 2008-11-14. 
  2. ^ Pierce, Bessie Louise (1957, rep. 2007). A History of Chicago: Volume III: The Rise of a Modern City, 1871–1893. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-226-66842-0. 
  3. ^ "The O'Leary Legend". Chicago History Museum. Retrieved 2007-03-18. 
  4. ^ L.L. Owens, The Great Chicago Fire, ABDO, p. 7.
  5. ^ {|Murphy, Jim. The Great Fire. U.S.A: Scholastic Inc, 1995. Book.|}
  6. ^ "The fire Fiend". Chicago Daily Tribune. 1871-10-08. p. 3. 
  7. ^ Morris, pp. 335–38.
  8. ^ "Municipal Flag of Chicago". Chicago Public Library. 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-04. 
  9. ^ Roland Tweet, Miss Gale's Books: The Beginnings of the Rock Island Public Library, (Rock Island, IL: Rock Island Public Library, 1997), 15.
  10. ^ "Cheer Up.". Chicago Daily Tribune. 1871-10-11. p. 2. 
  11. ^ "The Great Fires in Chicago and The West", by a Chicago Clergyman, Published by J.W. Goodspeed, Chicago, 1871
  12. ^ John J. Pauly, "The Great Chicago Fire as a National Event," American Quarterly 36, no. 5 (Winter 1984): p.671. The Johns Hopkins University Press,
  13. ^ Pierce, Betty Louise, A History of Chicago: The Rise of a Modern City, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1957, p. 7
  14. ^ Pierce (1957), Betty Louise, History of Chicago, p. 8
  15. ^ John J. Pauly, "The Great Chicago Fire as a National Event," American Quarterly 36, no. 5 (Winter 1984): p.673-674. The Johns Hopkins University Press,
  16. ^ Chicago Landmarks. retrieved December 14, 2006
  17. ^ Cromie, Robert (1994). The Great Chicago Fire. New York: Rutledge Hill Press. ISBN 1-55853-264-1. 
  18. ^ Richard F.Bales, "Did the Cow Do It? A New Look at the Cause of the Great Chicago Fire, "Illinois Historical Journal 90 no.1 (Spring 1997): p. 2,3,11.University of Illinois Press,
  19. ^ Bales, Richard F.; Thomas F. Schwartz (2005). The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. pp. 127–130. ISBN 0-7864-2358-7. 
  20. ^ "The Chicago Fire". Chicago Public Library. 2009. Retrieved 2009-09-30. 
  21. ^ Wood, Robert (February 3, 2004). "Did Biela's Comet Cause the Chicago and Midwest Fires?" (PDF). American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. 
  22. ^ Calfee, Mica (February 2003). "Was It A Cow Or A Meteorite?". Meteorite Magazine 9 (1). Retrieved 2011-11-10. 
  23. ^ "Meteorites Don't Pop Corn". NASA Science. NASA. 2001-07-27. Retrieved 2011-11-10. 
  24. ^ Gess, D.; Lutz, W. (2003). Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-8050-7293-8. OCLC 52421495. 
  25. ^ Bales, R. F.; Schwartz, T. F. (April 2005). "Debunking Other Myths". The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow. McFarland. p. 111. ISBN 978-0-7864-2358-3. OCLC 68940921. 
  26. ^ "Gases - Explosive and Flammability Concentration Limits". Retrieved 2011-11-13. 
  27. ^ a b "Landfill Gas". Environmental Health Fact Sheet. Illinois Department of Public Health. Retrieved 2011-11-13. 
  28. ^ Beech, M. (November 2006). "The Problem of Ice Meteorites". Meteorite Quarterly 12 (4): 17–19. Retrieved 2011-11-13. 
  29. ^ Tasker, G. (2003-10-10). "Worst fire largely unknown". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 2013-10-09. 
  30. ^ a b Wilkins, A. (2012-03-29). "October 8, 1871: The Night America Burned". Gawker Media. Retrieved 2013-10-09. 
  31. ^ H. R. Page & Co. (1882). "The Great Fire of 1871". History of Manistee County, Michigan. Chicago: H. R. Page & Co. 
  32. ^ "History Of The Urbana Fire Department". Urbana Firefighters Local 1147. 2008-03-07. Retrieved 2011-11-11. 
  33. ^ "The Timeline: Fire of 1871". Settling Canada's South: How Windsor Was Made. Windsor Public Library. 2002. Archived from the original on 2007-10-08. Retrieved 2008-03-14. 
  34. ^ "UIC Symbols: School Colors, Mascot, Song". UIC On-line Student Handbook. The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 2009. Retrieved 2010-05-09. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 41°52′10″N 87°38′30″W / 41.869313°N 87.641791°W / 41.869313; -87.641791