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The Great Chicago Fire – October 8, 1871

The Great Chicago Fire.

A turning point for the city and its fire department.

October 8, 1871 dawned warm and dry….just like most of the days that preceded it. Chicago and the rest of the mid-west had been suffering through a long drought and a hot wind blew into town from the Great Plains. It would set the stage for disaster, not just for Chicago but many other towns across the region.

The Chicago Fire Department was dog tired that morning. In preceding weeks, they had fought numerous other fires, some that on any ordinary day would have been the talk of the town and even considered historic by the Old Salts. By the end of this day however, those fires would be mostly forgotten.

The fire started at about 9 pm, in a barn at DeKoven Street and Jefferson Street. Popular legend tells us that Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern, but the author of that story later admitted having fabricated the story to sell papers. Some claimed later that a large meteor seen breaking up in the sky over the area was the cause of this fire as well as the numerous other large blazes that day. Science has mostly debunked that theory too. One local even admitted in his will that he may have started the fire while playing Craps.  The true cause was never determined.

This is from an article written by James Yackish:

The Chicago Fire Department was extremely overworked by the time Sunday night came around because the week prior had many devastating fires. Chicago is divided into three divisions by its river. The South Division is in between the lake and the southern branch of the river. This is where most of the wealthy people of Chicago live. The North Division is between the north branch of the river and the lake. The West Division was to the west of the river branches and was occupied by industries and residential living. So the Department had a lot of space to cover with many barriers in their way.

On September 30, 1871 the Burlington Warehouse burned down leaving a loss of $600,000. A succession of small fires followed that week. October 7,1871 a planning mill on Canal Street set fire. It grew four blocks before firemen could get it under control. The fire left a loss of $750,000. Firemen themselves had taken a toll. Many pieces of apparatus were destroyed or put out of commission. The firemen were also worn out after 16 hours of combating the flames.

The firemen had been fighting fires nonstop all week and were extremely worn out. The fatigue led to stupid mistakes and slow reactions. The firemen hoped that the width of Harrison Street would stop the beast. The people knew that if it jumped Harrison, "nothing can stop it except last nights burned district." The fire raged through the heart of the city, taking with it many historical buildings and the whole entire business district. Many new buildings were completely destroyed. The Crosby Opera House was only lit up for the first time an hour or two before the fire consumed it. The Fire Department was definitely in for the fight of their life. The fire was way to big for them to control. Finally by the third day of fire a rain started to fall helping to extinguish the great beast. The firemen where obviously undermanned, overworked and under equipped. However, even a healthy, well-equipped department would have struggled with the fire.

Of course, we all know what happened over the next three days in Chicago. The fire was not completely contained until a cold front's arrival on the 10th brought with it much needed heavy rain. Final death toll was officially 125 because that's the number of bodies recovered; however, this is considered far too low for the occupancy rate of the area. A final assumed death toll is around 300. The intense heat, high enough to cause fire-proof buildings to shed their bricks and mortar, likely incinerated hundreds of people into ash.

The Chicago River, heavily polluted by nearby industry, was covered that day with an oil slick and grease. It too ignited and burned. This is usually thought of as an "Only in Cleveland" tradition.

This is from Wikipedia:

Once the fire had ended, the smoldering remains were still too hot for a survey of the damage to be completed for days. Eventually the city determined that the fire destroyed an area about four miles (6 km) long and averaging 3/4 mile (1 km) wide, encompassing more than 2,000 acres (810 ha). Destroyed were more than 73 miles (117 km) of roads, 120 miles (190 km) of sidewalk, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings, and $222 million in property—about a third of the city's valuation. Of the 300,000 inhabitants, 100,000 were left homeless. Between two and three million books were destroyed from private library collections.[8]

The fire was said by The Chicago Daily Tribune to have been so fierce that it surpassed the damage done by the Fire of Moscow (1812).  Some buildings did survive the fire, such as the then-new Chicago Water Tower, one of five public buildings and a bungalow that survived within the disaster zone. The O'Leary home and the Holy Family Church, their parish church, were both saved by shifts in the wind.

What has generally been ignored and forgotten was that there were several other historic fires that day.

250 miles to the north, the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, burned to the ground along with 12 nearby villages and 1.5 MILLION acres of forest. Death toll was estimated between 1200 and 2500 people. This fire was virtually ignored by the press due to the Chicago fire, and it still stands today as the worst fire death toll in American history.

To the east of Peshtigo, the town of Holland, Michigan burned and to the north, the town of Manistee burned in what became known as the Great Michigan Fire. Manistee was a lumbering town, supplying wood that might very well have contributed to the Chicago fire!

East of Chicago, Port Huron, Michigan also burned this day along with a significant portion of Michigan's thumb. Over the next 2 days, Urbana, Illinois and Windsor, Ontario also burned.

In an interesting side note, the town of Singapore, Michigan, contributed heavily towards the lumber needed to rebuild Chicago and surrounding towns, so much so that the area was completely deforested and it returned to the sand dunes once common across the region, and had to be abandoned.

There are no known photographs of the fires, just hand drawn illustrations. One famed Civil War newspaper Illustrator, Alfred Waud, who was in St. Louis when he heard of the fire, jumped on a train and made his way into the inferno at its height, supplying many of the images seen today.

Pencil, chalk and paint illustration by Alfred Waud

West DeKovan and South Jefferson Street, now home to the Chicago Fire Department Training Center, and the Great Chicago Fire Memorial sculpture which stands directly on the site of the O'Leary barn.  (The Flame sculpture seen in the plaza in the center of this Google Street View image)

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