The Great Chicago Fire

“Building, breaking, rebuilding, Under the smoke …”  –  “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg

Whether or not Mrs. O’Leary’s cow actually did kick over the lantern that started the fire that destroyed the city of Chicago this week (Oct. 8) in 1871 (and the majority of historians think not), one thing is certain.  The “Great Chicago Fire,” as it was called, was deserving of the title.

And in many ways the city of Chicago was deserving of the fire.  The vast majority of the city’s densely packed structures — including the streets, sidewalks and bridges — were made of wood, so the city’s fire prevention measures were hopelessly inadequate, as were its fire-fighting capabilities.  As a result, fires were common in Chicago, averaging two per week, and the previous summer had been unusually hot and dry.

Thus when Mrs. O’Leary’s barn caught fire, the flames quickly spread, driven by a strong southwest wind that sent the fire right into the heart of the city, and when the fire destroyed Chicago’s waterworks and cut off its water supply, the city’s fire-fighting capabilities went from inadequate to non-existent.  By midnight the fire had become so intense it even managed to leap the Chicago River, burning the southern part of the city to the ground.

It had also split into different directions, pursuing thousands of panic-stricken Chicagoans north, reaching North Avenue by noon the next day, Monday, and spreading along Fullerton Avenue, which at that time was the northernmost part of the city.

On Tuesday a long overdue rain finally helped bring the fire under control, but the damage was enormous.  Approximately four square miles of central Chicago were destroyed. Property damage was estimated at more than $200 million, which was about one-third of the city’s total valuation.  Nearly 100,000 people were homeless and more than 250 people died, in part because, fires being so common in Chicago, they had not realized the seriousness of this particular fire until it was too late.  Famous buildings that were destroyed included City Hall, the Palmer House and the building that housed The Chicago Tribune, which was somewhat ironic since that paper had spent the entire summer publishing articles and editorials chastising the city council for not doing more to increase Chicago’s fire-protection capabilities.

Yet the silver lining was that Chicago was quickly rebuilt, this time of steel and concrete, literally paving its way to becoming, as poet Carl Sandburg wrote, “the city of the big shoulders” and one of the central economic way stations for the entire eastern part of the country.

Fittingly, in 1956, the remaining structures on the original O’Leary property were torn down for construction of the Chicago Fire Academy, which trained future Chicago firefighters.