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What Happened During the Great Chicago Fire?

An enduring myth posits that a cow was to blame.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There have been a number of fires throughout history that have irreparably destroyed or changed cities. Among them are the Great Fire of Rome, the Great Fire of London, and the Great Fire of New York. Many of these incidents led to innovations, regulations, and the introduction of fire codes that hadn’t been considered previously. Among these landscape-changing fires was the Great Fire of Chicago. 

Related Article: The Great Fire of Rome Nearly Destroyed the City in the Empire's First Century 

There were several factors that led to the Great Fire of Chicago. Among them was the fact that the city had been experiencing abnormally dry weather. By October of 1871, the city had received very little rain since early July. It was also in the beginning of an unusually hot October, with temperatures in the low to mid-80s. Another detrimental factor that contributed to the catastrophe was the fact that the majority of the city’s infrastructure was wooden. This was true not only of the buildings, but of many roads and sidewalks. 

How the fire started is still in contention. The idea that it began when one Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern is one that’s permeated our culture. There’s no disputing that the fire broke out in the vicinity of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn. However, Mrs. O’Leary always vehemently denied that it was an act of bovine aggression that started the fire. Indeed, that rumor may have originated in anti-immigrant sentiment.

Other theories surrounding how the fire started range from human error to unusual atmospheric conditions. The first person to claim full responsibility for it was a man named Louis M. Cohn. The question of Cohn’s responsibility was raised through a press release in 1944, years after his death. Aged 18 at the time of the fire, Cohn claimed that he and several other young men had been playing a card game in the O’Learys' barn. He said that a lantern was knocked over during the game, setting the barn alight, and subsequently spreading. 

Related: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: New York City’s Deadliest Industrial Disaster

Another theory held that Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan was the one who started the fire. Sullivan was the first to report the fire, claiming to have seen the side of the O'Leary barn being consumed by flames. However, there may have been a contradiction between where Sullivan claimed to have been, and whether or not he would’ve been able to see the barn from there. Some believe that Sullivan was in fact in the barn at the time, and caused the fire by either knocking over a lantern, or carelessly flicking hot ashes from his pipe. 

great chicago fire
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  • 1871 illustration from Harper's Magazine.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

One final theory posits that perhaps a comet or meteor shower led to the fires that ravished not only Chicago, but Peshtigo, Wisconsin, as well as numerous blazes across Michigan. Robert Wood, an engineer and physicist, suggested that the tail of the Biela’s Comet broke apart, leading to several of the “spontaneous ignitions” that were reported. However, this theory is considered unlikely by the scientific community.

Regardless of how it started, the fire began on the evening of October 8th, 1871, at 137 DeKoven Street. This barn was located on the southwest side of Chicago. With the arid conditions and the abundance of wooden structures across the city, it didn’t take long for the fire to grow. The strong wind only increased the speed and volatility of the blaze, spreading flames and debris. In just two hours, flaming debris blew across the river, toward the city center. The fire was so dangerous that the mayor ordered the evacuation of the court house, and for the prisoners being held there to be freed.

Chicago wasn’t wholly without firefighting capabilities in 1871. At the time, the city had 17 horse-drawn steam engines, and 185 firefighters. There was a strong initial response by the fire department once the blaze was reported. However, an error sent the firefighting forces to the wrong location, slowing their efforts. 

The fire would go on to burn over the next 36 hours. It destroyed over 17,000 structures, and left over 100,000 people homeless. It’s estimated that the fire killed around 300 people. The blaze was finally brought under control when the city received some much-needed rain on October 10th. 

The Great Rebuilding

It took the city years to rebuild what had been destroyed in just under two days. However, the city took care not to return to the wooden structures that had dominated the city and aided the spread of fire and flaming debris. 

Laws were passed regarding what a building could and could not be made of to stave off a repeat of the catastrophic spread. Wood was banned as a building material in downtown Chicago. Other preferred materials, such as brick, marble, limestone, and terracotta grew in use and popularity. 

Related: Chaos Reigned During the 1814 Burning of Washington

These structural improvements, including the additional regulations regarding wooden homes and structures, meant that many immigrants were forced to move from the downtown area. Many couldn’t afford the expense that it cost to build a brick home, from the materials to the masons needed to construct it. They also couldn’t afford fire insurance. This meant an exodus of poorer immigrants and smaller businesses. Many were forced to trade the city center for the outskirts of Chicago.

While building progressed at a decent clip for the next few years, efforts were briefly hampered as a result of the Long Depression of 1873. Then, nearly three years after the first fire, another small fire broke out. In July of 1874, a fire began in an immigrant’s wooden home, which was beside an oil factory. The fire was heavily influenced by the same dryness and southwest winds that had spurred the Great Fire on. 

great chicago fire
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  • A lithograph by Currier and Ives showing people flee across Randolph Street Bridge.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Burning for roughly seven hours, this second fire led to the destruction of around 60 acres of the South Division, an area of the city that had been entirely untouched by the Great Fire of Chicago. While this was a setback, it only pushed the people of Chicago to continue to build improvements. It was roughly a decade before the Great Rebuilding was completed. 

Just days after the fire in 1871, the co-owner of the Chicago Tribune, William Bross, raised a call to action with Chicago’s citizens. He urged determination in the face of the disaster, and fortitude in the time to come:


In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world's history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years' accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN!”