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'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.
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.
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.