The Great Chicago Fire
Photo Credit: Eschipul
When admiring Chicago’s imposing skyline, it’s hard to believe that approximately 140 years ago, this great city was brought to its knees by a fire that raged for nearly three days, claiming hundreds of lives, and destroying four square miles of homes, businesses, stores, and land. The fire decimated 34 blocks of the city, from its origin near DeKoven Street, north to Fullerton. If you need a visual benchmark, four square miles consists of about 1,936 football fields! That’s a lot of Bears games!
Many details of the fire are based on speculation, hearsay, and folklore. The media at the time was not nearly as reliable as it is today, and the chaos that ensued after the fire made collecting factual information even more difficult. What is known for certain, though, is the fire began on the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871 at the O’Leary residence somewhere near 137 DeKoven Street, the area that is now flanked by the train tracks leading into Union Station and the river. According to some reports, an excited cow overturned a lantern, setting the O’Leary’s barn ablaze. However, journalist Michael Ahern later said he made that little bit up to make his story more interesting.
At the time, practically the entire city, including the streets and sidewalks, was made of wood. This, coupled with strong winds and a long drought preceding the disaster, enabled the fire to spread rapidly. The fire department, which had already battled one fire earlier in the day, was not called right away, and when they were, confusion over the location of the blaze sent them in the wrong direction, allowing the fire to grow ever larger.
Masses of people gathered at the edge of Lake Michigan, attempting to survive the fire. The Mayor declared a state of emergency and instated martial law, naming ex-Civil War general Philip Sheridan in charge. The fire ran its course and eventually burned out, with a little help from some rain, early on October 10th. When all was said and done, the fire destroyed $222 million in property, leaving 90,000 people homeless. Though much was destroyed, some buildings, such as the famous water tower on Michigan Avenue and Old St. Pat’s Church, were miraculously spared.
At the time of the fire, Chicago was just beginning to round the corner from its previous label of Midwestern town to large city. The city’s population had grown from 5,000 people in 1837 to over 330,000 in 1871. Though the fire was devastating, the reconstruction period that followed cemented Chicago as a bustling urban center and laid the ground work that enabled Chicago to blossom into the great city it is today.