The summer of 1871 was one of the driest on record, with only 2.5 inches of rain between July 3 and October 9 (Rayfield). Chicago had already had several major fired in the downtown that year. The day before the great fire, a planning mill had caught on fire, burning four blocks (Rayfield). The conditions were right for a major fire outbreak.
The great fire began a little after 9 PM on October 8, 1871. The fire began in a barn behind the O’Leary residence at 137 DeKoven Street. The fire department was dispatched. However, they were sent to the wrong address. By the time they arrived, the fire was already out of control (Chicago Historical Society). The fire quickly spread eastward and northward into the commercial, industrial, and wealthier neighborhoods. Grand mansions, businesses, and factories were consumed by the flames.
It was thought that the Chicago River would stop the fire, as it has done in the past, but before midnight, it has crossed the Chicago River and was encroaching on the Northern part of the city (Rayfield). The courthouse burned in the early morning of October 9. When the waterworks on Pine Street was lost, the city’s only pumping station went dry. There was no water without the pump house (Rayfield). The fire raged for two days and finally died out on October 10, 1871 (Chicago Historical Society). Rains on October 10 helped the firefighting efforts (The History Channel).
2.0 Effects of the Chicago Fire of 1871
In the aftermath of the fire, the center of the downtown was completely destroyed. The fire left 300 dead, 100,000 homeless, and died more than $200 million in property damage (Chicago Historical Society). Remarkably, the home of the O’Leary’s survived the fire and was spared (Bales). The damage path was about four miles wide and a mile long, consuming approximately 17,000 buildings (The History Channel). Many whose businesses were lost were now unemployed. Only about half of the buildings were covered by insurance. To complicate matters further, many of the insurance companies themselves were a total loss and could not cover the claims (Rayfield).
The town broke into chaos with looting and crime as soon as the fire began. Martial law was declared on October 11 and was not lifted until several weeks later (The History Channel). Mayoral candidate, Joseph Medill, was elected mayor soon after the fire, based on promises to enforce stricter building and safety codes (The History Channel). Rebuilding efforts began almost immediately, leading to a period of economic growth and abundance. Many of the city’s transportation systems and infrastructure was still intact, allowing reconstruction to begin quickly.
This blank slate allowed the groundwork to be laid for the first skyscrapers. Only four days after the fire, one businessman had already raised $3 million for a new apartment building that was already booked full (Rayfield). The city had not stopped smoldering and it had already begun to rebuild. People flocked to the city for the job opportunities there. The city grew from 324,000 in 1871 to 500,000 in 1880. By 1890, it was a city of one million people (The History Channel). In 1893, Chicago had risen from the ashes into a bustling modern city. That same year it hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, bring in millions of visitors and revenue (The History Channel). The Chicago Fire was what allowed the Chicago of today to come into existence.
3.0 Causes of the Chicago Fire of 1871
The summer of 1871 was hot and dry, creating the perfect conditions for a fire to catch. Many of the buildings were made of wood, making the perfect fuel for the fire to spread. One of the most popular stories is that the fire began when one of the O’Leary’s cows kicked over a lantern (Chicago Historical Society). However, this brings into question what the lantern was doing in a place where the cow could kick it. Lanterns were often hung off the ground, unless there was a reason to sit them on the ground or on the floor. The common story about the cow is wrapped in myth and legend. The only thing that is for certain in the historical record is that the fire started on the O’Leary’s property.
The cause of the fire was never determined, even after 1100 pages of witness testimony by over 50 people, including Mr. and Mrs. O’Leary. The Chicago Board of Police was never able to determine if the fire was a result of human intervention, or of it were a spark blown by the winds that night (Bales). There are rumors that a person called Daniel “peg leg” Sullivan started the fire by kicking over a lantern in the O’Leary’s Barn. Another rumor is that a person named Dennis Regan may have started the fire. His testimony did not match that of the other witness and he seems to have known about the fire before anyone else (Bales). The exact cause of the fire will never be known for certain, but many different theories and possibilities exist. In 1997, the City of Chicago passed a resolution exonerating Mrs. O’Leary and her cow for lack of evidence (The History Channel).
4.0 Lessons Learned by the Fire
The Chicago fire lead to many changes in building codes and fire regulations. As a tribute to the lessons learned, the Chicago Fire Department Training Academy was built on the site of the O’Leary’s property (The History Channel). The Great Chicago Fire taught a lesson about the need to be careful about fire safety and disaster training. It is an example of the potential devastation that can be caused by a seemingly small moment of carelessness.
Perhaps the greatest lesson learned by the Chicago fire is that human lives are more important than profits. Those who built the buildings of cheap materials saved on cost, allowing them to keep more money for themselves. In the end, lives were lost because they chose to put money ahead of people. The City of Chicago now has some of the strictest building codes of any city. They will never make the same mistake again.
- Bales, Robert. “What do we know about the Great Chicago Fire?” thechicagofire.com. 2004. Web. Accessed February 16, 2014.
- Chicago Historical Society. “The Great Chicago Fire.” Chicagohs.org. 1999. Web. Accessed February 16, 2014.
- Rayfield, Jo Ann. “Tragedy in the Chicago Fire and Triumph in the Architectural Response.” Northern Illinois University Library. 1997. Web. Accessed February 14, 2014.
- The History Channel. “Chicago Fire of 1871.” History.com. 2014 Web. Accessed February 16, 2014.