Chicago Fire of 1871

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At about 9 o'clock on the night of October 8, 1871, a fire started in a cowshed behind a Chicago home. It had been an unusually dry summer and the flames jumped quickly from house to house, then from street to street. The blaze raced along from the southwest to the northeast, enveloping the business district and leaping over the Chicago River, dying out only when it reached Lake Michigan almost thirty hours later. Never before had the prosperous American city seen such devastation and upheaval. At the time, many feared the metropolis would not be able to regain its standing as an industrial and economic center. But Chicago recovered swiftly, reaffirming its citizen's faith in their city's perseverance and resilience.

There are several theories about how the Chicago Fire of 1871 began. Rumors spread almost as rapidly as the flames, most of them based on stories about Patrick and Catherine O'Leary and their dairy cow, which was said to have kicked over a lantern that sparked the conflagration. Other explanations range from the accidentala spark blown from a chimney, or a matchstick dropped to the intentionalarson, or even the wrath of an angry God. To this day, however, colorful myths surround the tragic event, and the unsolved mystery remains a subject of speculation and debate.

Less ambiguous to historians is what made the fire grow to a size and ferocity that were uncontainable. At the onset of the blaze, local firefighters struggled to pin down its location; by the time they reached the O'Leary's residence, the barn was engulfed in flames. A smaller fire had swept through four of Chicago's city blocks the day before and the fire department's hoses and pumps were worn out from that effort. Once the barnyard blaze raged out of control, the surrounding buildings and the entire city were at risk.

Then the lumber capital of the world, Chicago was a city built primarily of wood. Its houses, storefronts, and factorieseven its sidewalks and streetswere made of this versatile yet flammable material. Drought, which had plagued the region for months, left all of this wood dry, brittle, and particularly vulnerable to flame. The fire enveloped the city's most ornate mansions and its humblest shacks. Gusts of wind carried "fire devils," chunks of flaming wood, which rapidly spread the destruction.

Pandemonium erupted in the streets as families abandoned their homes. Many people seized valuables from the blazing buildings and looting broke out as vandals took advantage of the confusion. In his article "The Great Chicago Fire," John Pauly described how businessmen trundled their families off to safe havens, then risked their lives to reach downtown offices, hoping to salvage money, records, and equipment. Some felt safe enough to stand back and watch the bright, awesome conflagration. "It was a grand sight, and yet and awful one," wrote William Gallagher, a theological student, in a letter to his sister preserved by the Chicago Historical Society. "[T]he business part of Chicago was unexcelled by any of our cities in beauty of architecture, handsome and costly warehouses, and convenience of arrangement."

Chicago's business district was indeed impressive. With the development of the railroad and the economic boom that followed the American Civil War (18611865), the city thrived. But the fire raged through four square miles of the metropolis; it demolished factories, stores, railroad depots, hotels, theaters, and banks. Flames burned ships in the Chicago River and consumed nearly all the city's publishing and printing. In the end property damage totaled $192 million. Nearly 300 people died in the blaze and 100,000 were made homeless. Millionaires became paupers over-night, their businesses destroyed.

At first, the damage seemed irreparable. The fire not only halted but also erased much of the progress the city had made in recent years. Chaos reigned in the days following the catastrophe, as civil unrest and looting continued. Mayor Roswell B. Mason declared martial law to preserve peace in the ravaged city. But help was on the way, and with dispatches sent via telegraph, Chicagoans were able to maintain contact with nearby cities that would assist in the rescue, rebuilding, and recovery efforts. Many businesses in other cities had economic interests to protect in ChicagoNew York vendors, for example, conducted trade with interior states through Chicago merchants. The support of businesses in other cities helped the city to emerge from the ashes of the great fire.

The rebuilding of Chicago was a tremendous endeavor. Insurance companies in America and Europe rose to the occasion, producing the sums they were obliged to pay for the damages. Cities in America and abroad sent $5 million in relief funds and thousands of donated books replenished Chicago's libraries. Fortunately much of the city's infrastructureits grain elevators, railroad lines, water supply, and sewage systemsremained intact. The city was able to resurrect itself quickly on this underlying framework. Before long Chicago began to attract entrepreneurs, businessmen, and well-known architects, who found ways to profit from the reconstruction efforts.

Chicagoans' greatest fear was never realized: Their city did not perish. Rather, the rebuilt metropolis reemerged, years later stronger than before, with buildings and homes constructed under new fire regulations. The world's first steel frame skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, was erected in 1885, and by 1890 Chicago was the second largest city in America. The 1871 fire marked an interruptionbut fortunately, not a terminationin the period of economic growth that Chicago, along with other American cities, experienced during the post-Civil War years.

See also: Illinois


"A Dairy Tale: History Buff Richard Bales Says Mrs. O'Leary's Cow Did Not Kick-Start the Chicago Fire of 1871." People Weekly, September 22, 1997.

Burgan, Michael. "The Great Chicago Fire." National Geographic World, September, 1998.

"The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory" [cited March 27, 1999], available from the Chicago Historical Society Site on the World Wide Web @

"The Great Chicago Fire of 1871" [cited March 27, 1999], available on the World Wide Web @

The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 19TK, s.v. "Chicago: History."

Pauly, John. "The Great Chicago Fire as a National Event." American Quarterly. Winter 1984.

never shall i forget the sight as i looked back on the burning city. on the bridge, a man hurrying along said, "this is the end of chicago," but with assurance the thirteen-year-old replied, "no, no, she will rise again."

bessie bradwell, memoir sent to the chicago historical society, 1926

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Chicago Fire of 1871

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