Today in History: Chicago Fire of 1871

On this day, 138 years ago, a massive fire ripped through the city of Chicago, killing 300 people and leaving 90,000 homeless.  It caused $200 million worth of damage and destroyed 4 square miles of the city.  Using the website Measuring Worth to calculate the amount adjusted for the worth of today’s dollar, the damage would be equal to $3,636,875,000.00.  That’s almost $3.7 billion dollars.

Below are some primary sources from The Library of Congress regarding the Fire:

A panoramic map showing the burnt district.

Another panoramic picture of the devastated city, titled: The Great Conflagration of Chicago. October 8th and 9th, 1871.

I also found a great first-hand account of the fire.

It was the great fire of 1871 that made me a country peddler. Oh, yes! I remember the fire very well. It was in October. We used to go to bed early, because the two roomers had to go to work very early. We were getting ready to go to bed, when we heard the fire bells ringing. I asked the two men if they wanted to see where the fire was.

“Why should I care where the fire is,” one of the men said. “As long as our house is not on fire, I don’t care what house is burning. There is a fire every Monday and Thursday in Chicago.”

But I wanted to see the fire. So I went out into the street. I saw the flames across the river. But I thought that since the river was between the fire and our house, there was nothing to worry about. I went into the house and went to bed.

The next thing I knew my two bed-fellows were shaking me. “Get up,” they cried. “The whole city is on fire! Save your things! We are going to Lincoln Park.”

I jumped out of bed and pulled on my pants. Everybody in the house was trying to save as much as possible. I tied my clothes in a sheet. With my clothes under my arm and my pack on my back, I left the house with the rest of the family. Everybody was running north. People were carrying all kinds of crazy things. A woman was carrying a pot of soup, which was spilling all over her dress. People were carrying cats, dogs and goats. In the great excitement people saved worthless things and left behind good things. I saw a woman carrying a big frame in which was framed her wedding veil and wreath. She said it would have been bad luck to leave it behind.

No one slept that night. People gathered on the streets and all kinds of reasons were given for the fire. I stood near a minister. He was talking to a group of men. He said the fire was sent by God as a warning that the people were wicked. He said there were too many saloons in Chicago. There were too many houses of prostitution. A woman who heard this said that since the fire started in a barn it was a direct warning from God. She said Jesus was also born in a barn. I talked to a man who lived next door to Mrs. O’Leary, and he told me that the fire started in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. She went out to milk the cow when it was begining to get dark. She took a lamp with her and the cow kicked the lamp over and that’s how the fire started.

According to the website The Chicago Fire, the cause of the epic fire was started by a cow knocking over a lit lantern, igniting Mr. and Mrs. Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn, which quickly spread throughout the city.

Historians agree that on Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, the Chicago Fire did indeed start in the barn of Mr. and Mrs. Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. While the blaze ironically spared the O’Leary home, located on the city’s West Side at 137 De Koven Street, much of the rest of Chicago was not so fortunate. Before the fire died out in the early morning of Tuesday, October 10, it had cut a swath through Chicago approximately three and one-third square miles in size. Property valued at $192,000,000 was destroyed, 100,000 people were left homeless, and 300 people lost their lives.

Interestingly, this may be an urban legend, however.

I also found another great resource detailing the Fire at the Chicago History Museum’s website.  It has many great illustrations and first-hand accounts of the event.  The website also has additional information regarding what may be the true account regarding the story that the cow caused the initial spark.

On top of this, on the fortieth anniversary of the great conflagration a police reporter named Michael Ahern, who was working for the Chicago Republican at the time of the fire, boasted in the Tribune that he and two now-deceased cronies made the whole thing up.

After two years of rebuilding and recovery, Chicago became host to the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the The Chicago World’s Fair.  The city had finally fully recovered from the devastating fire.

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3 thoughts on “Today in History: Chicago Fire of 1871

  1. THANKS!!! I needed info on the Great Fire for an English project and this provided a LOT of help! Multiple opinions and primary sources! Thanks so much!

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