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Chicago Fire


CHICAGO FIRE. Modern Chicago, Illinois, began its growth in 1833. By 1871 it had a population of 300,000. Across the broad plain that skirts the Chicago River's mouth, buildings by the thousand extended, constructed with no thought of resistance to fire. Even the sidewalks were of resinous pine, and the single pumping station that supplied the mains with water had a wooden roof. The season was excessively dry. A scorching wind blew up from the plains of the far Southwest week after week and made the structures of pine-built Chicago as dry as tinder. A conflagration of appalling proportions awaited only the igniting spark.

It began on Sunday evening, 8 October 1871. Where it started is clear, but how it started, no one knows. The traditional story is that Mrs. O'Leary went out to the barn with a lamp to milk her cow, the cow kicked over the lamp, and cow, stable, and Chicago became engulfed in one common flame. Nonetheless, Mrs. O'Leary testified under oath that she was safe abed and knew nothing about the fire until a family friend called to her.

Once started, the fire moved onward relentlessly until there was nothing more to burn. Between nine o'clock on Sunday evening and ten-thirty the following night, an area of five square miles burned. The conflagration destroyed over 17,500 buildings and rendered 100,000 people homeless. The direct property loss was about $200 million. The loss of human life is commonly estimated at between 200 and 300.

In 1997, in a nod to the city's history, Major League Soccer announced the formation of an expansion team called the Chicago Fire, which began play in 1998.


Biel, Steven, ed. American Disasters. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Miller, Ross. American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Sawislak, Karen. Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871–1874. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

M. M.Quaife/a. e.

See alsoAccidents ; Chicago ; Disasters ; Soccer .

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