On the evening of October 8, 1871, Catherine O’Leary stepped outside her house in Southwest Chicago. She fed the horses and led them to the barn before retiring for the night. Catherine and her husband Patrick were already in bed when a neighbor noticed flames coming from their barn. He alerted the O’Learys’, but dry and windy conditions allowed the fire to grow out of control. Within ten minutes, two blocks were ablaze. The fire came to be known as the Great Chicago Fire, and by October 10th, it consumed some five square miles. More than 17,000 buildings burned to the ground, and 300 people died. Although folklore states that the fire began when Catherine’s cow kicked over an oil lamp, no one really knows how it started. This month marks the 150th anniversary of the fire.
Chicago was incorporated in the 1830s and grew to become the world’s largest grain port by the 1850s. The city was built predominantly of wood and was prone to fires. It had been unusually hot and dry in Chicago that fall, and the area was experiencing a drought. When the fire started at the O’Leary farm, tinderbox conditions quickly led to a firestorm that overwhelmed the city. Firefighters attempted to douse the massive flames, but the city’s waterworks burned and cut off water to the hydrants.
As the fire spread, it jumped the south branch of the Chicago River and destroyed much of central Chicago before jumping the river again and consuming the Near North Side. Windswept sparks landed on roofs and sheds, starting new fires. The fire burned for about another 24 hours, essentially unchecked.
Emma Schultze was 8 years old at the time. She recalled that her family woke at 2:00 a.m. to friends pounding on the door, telling them the city was ablaze. Although they lived on the outskirts of town, the Schultze family saw flames headed in their direction. Emma’s father dug a hole in the front yard and dumped in the family linen, silver, dishes, bedding, and even furniture. Emma’s mother quickly dressed her in layer after layer of petticoats and dresses. Finally, with their arms laden with household items, the family set out on foot towards the home of a friend. Several days later, they returned to find the smoldering foundation of their home. As they explored the ruins, hot ashes burned the soles of their shoes off. The Schultze family joined more than 100,000 people left homeless in the wake of the fire.
The Chicago Tribune, unable to publish papers on October 9th or 10th, described the scene in the October 11th edition. “This city has been swept by a conflagration which has no parallel in the annals of history.” By the night of the 9th, the fire began to burn itself out. A light rainstorm that night helped douse the final hot spots.
Reconstruction began almost immediately, and relief poured in from around the country and abroad. Railroads offered free passage to those who wanted to leave. Improved building techniques and updated fire standards helped Chicagoans rebuild and emerge as a modern city. Just two decades later, Congress named Chicago the host city for the 1893 World’s Fair.
Like this post? Try one of these: