chicago fire

1871 Great Chicago Fire

The Great Chicago Fire was a conflagration that burned from Sunday October 8 to early Tuesday October 10, 1871, killing hundreds and destroying about four square miles in Chicago, Illinois. Though the fire was one of the largest U.S. disasters of the 19th century, the rebuilding that began almost immediately spurred Chicago's development into one of the most populous and economically important American cities.

On the municipal flag of Chicago, the second star commemorates the fire.


The fire started at about 9 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, in or around a small shed that bordered the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street. 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. Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter who created the cow story, admitted in 1893 that he had made it up because he thought it would make colorful copy.

The fire's spread was aided by the city's overuse of wood for building, a drought prior to the fire, and strong winds from the southwest that carried flying brands toward the heart of the city. The city also made fatal errors by not reacting soon enough and citizens were apparently unconcerned when it began. The firefighters were also exhausted from fighting a fire that happened the day before.

Spread of the blaze

The city's fire department did not receive the first alarm until 9:40 p.m., when a fire alarm was pulled at a pharmacy. The fire department was alerted when the fire was still small, but the guard on duty did not respond as he thought that the glow in the sky was from the smoldering flames of a fire the day before. When the blaze got bigger, the guard realized that there actually was a new fire and sent firefighters, but in the wrong direction.

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

When the fire engulfed a tall church west of the Chicago River, the flames crossed the south branch of the river. Helping the fire spread were 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.

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 cut off, and the firefighters were forced to give up.

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 north branch 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.

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.

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.

Once the fire had ended, the smoldering remains were still too hot for a survey of the damage to be completed for days. Eventually it was 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 km²). Destroyed were more than 73 miles (120 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, 90,000 were left homeless. 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. Remarkably, some buildings did survive the fire, such as the then-new Chicago Water Tower, which remains today as an unofficial memorial to the fire's destructive power. It was one of just five public buildings and one ordinary bungalow spared by the flames within the disaster zone. The O'Leary home and Holy Family Church, the Roman Catholic congregation of the O'Leary family, were both saved by shifts in the wind direction that kept them outside the burnt district.

After the fire, 125 bodies were recovered. Final estimates of the fatalities ranged from 200–300, considered a small number for such a large fire. In later years, other disasters in the city would claim more lives: at least 600 died in the Iroquois Theater fire in 1903; and, in 1915, 835 died in the sinking of the Eastland excursion boat in the Chicago River. Yet the Great Chicago Fire remains Chicago's most well-known disaster, for the magnitude of the destruction and the city's recovery and growth.

Almost immediately, reform began in the city's fire standards, spurred along by the efforts of leading insurance executives and fire prevention reformers such as Arthur C. Ducat and others. Chicago emerged from the fire with 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. Only 22 years later, Chicago hosted more than 21 million visitors during the World's Columbian Exposition. Another example of Chicago's rebirth from the Great Fire ashes is the now famed Palmer House hotel. The original building burned to the ground in the fire just 13 days after its grand opening. Without hesitating, Potter Palmer secured a loan and rebuilt the hotel in a lot 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 were torn down for construction of the Chicago Fire Academy, a training facility for Chicago firefighters located at 558 W. DeKoven Street. A bronze sculpture of stylized flames entitled Pillar of Fire by sculptor Egon Weiner was erected on the point of origin in 1961.

Questions about the fire

Catherine O'Leary seemed the perfect scapegoat: she was a woman, an immigrant and Catholic, a combination which did not fare well in the political climate of the time in Chicago. 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. Michael Ahern, the reporter who came up with the story, would retract it in 1893, admitting that it had been fabricated.

More recently, amateur historian Richard Bales has come to believe it was actually started when Daniel "Pegleg" Sullivan, who first reported the fire, ignited some hay in the barn while trying to steal some milk. However, evidence recently reported in the Chicago Tribune by Anthony DeBartolo suggests Louis M. Cohn may have started the fire during a craps game. Cohn may also have admitted to starting the fire in a lost will, according to Alan Wykes in his 1964 book The Complete Illustrated Guide to Gambling.

An alternative theory, first suggested in 1882, 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 and rained down below. 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. This theory has been disputed by NASA.

Surviving structures

Related events

In that hot, dry and windy autumn, three other major fires occurred along the shores of Lake Michigan at the same time as the Great Chicago Fire. Some 250 miles (400 kilometres) to the north, a forest fire driven by strong winds consumed the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin along with a dozen other villages, killing 1,200 to 2,500 people and charring approximately 1.5 million acres (6,000 km²). Though the Peshtigo Fire remains the deadliest in American history, the remoteness of the region meant it was little noticed at the time. Across the lake to the east, the town of Holland, Michigan and other nearby areas burned to the ground. Some to the north of Holland the lumbering community of Manistee, Michigan also went up in flames. Farther east, along the shore of Lake Huron, another tremendous fire swept through Port Huron, Michigan and much of Michigan's "Thumb".

In pop culture

Film and television

  • In Old Chicago, a 1938 drama film telling the story of the fictionalized version of the O'Learys as they escape from the blazing inferno that was once Chicago.
  • In the Histeria episode "The Wheel of History", Nostradamus tells the story of the fire and it is presented as a discussion on Barry Ding Live (a spoof of Larry King Live) where all the protagonists are interviewed. Daisy, a cow, was arrested following a slow cow chase (alluding to the slow car chase that led to the arrest of O.J. Simpson) and denies starting the fire, claiming the charges are "udderly false". There are phone in segments from Mrs. O' Leary, Peg Leg as well as the reporter who first carried the story (as well as a phone call from Cato), all of whom are shown accidentally starting fires themselves.
  • In the second season episode of Early Edition titled "Hot Time In The Old Town," the main character, Gary Hobson, travels back in time and tries to prevent the fire. When he arrives in the time period dazed and confused, he is taken in by an Irish immigrant who turns out to be the husband of Catherine O'Leary.
  • In Time Travelers the time travelers arrive in Chicago on the morning of the day the fire starts.
  • In the 2007 TV movie Ben 10: Race Against Time, the fire is attributed to one of many secret attempts over the years to dispose of a seemingly indestructible alien artifact—apparently, this and other attempts caused damage to surrounding areas without harming the artifact itself (a later attempt is said to be the cause of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
  • In the time period of 2002–2005 a team of arson investigators for the show Unsolved History airing on the Discovery Channel tried to figure out what caused the 1871 Great Chicago Fire and reconstructed O'leary's barn to demonstrate how the fire might have started and spread.


  • The song "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" appears on SMiLE by Brian Wilson.
  • Sufjan Stevens sings "Oh great fire of great disaster" in "The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders" on his 2005 album Illinois.
  • Johnny Horton recorded "O'Leary's Cow" on Johnny Horton Makes History (Columbia Records)
  • The band Allister also has a song called "The Legend of Pegleg Sullivan"
  • Inspector Muffin composed a song entitled "The Great Chicago Fire".
  • There is a band called The Great Chicago Fire based out of Saco, Maine.


See also



External links

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