On this day October 8, 1871

The Great Chicago Fire broke out in Chicago, destroying 17,500 buildings and leaving 90,000 people homeless within two days.

Dearborn and Monroe Streets, 1871

Dearborn and Monroe Streets, 1871

The fire started at about 9 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, in or around a small shed that bordered the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street.

The traditional account of the origin of the fire is that it was started by a cow kicking over a lantern in the barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter who created the cow story, admitted in 1893 that he had made it up because he thought it would make colorful copy.

The fire’s spread was aided by the city’s overuse of wood for building, a drought prior to the fire, and strong winds from the southwest that carried flying embers toward the heart of the city.

The city also made fatal errors by not reacting soon enough and citizens were apparently unconcerned when it began. The firefighters were also exhausted from fighting a fire that happened the day before.

The city’s fire department did not receive the first alarm until 9:40 p.m., when a fire alarm was pulled at a pharmacy. The fire department was alerted when the fire was still small. When the blaze got bigger, the guard realized that there actually was a new fire and sent firefighters, but in the wrong direction.

Soon the fire had spread to neighboring frame houses and sheds. Superheated winds drove flaming brands northeastward.

When the fire engulfed a tall church west of the Chicago River, the flames crossed the south branch of the river. Helping the fire spread was firewood in the closely packed wooden buildings, ships lining the river, the city’s elevated wood-plank sidewalks and roads, and the commercial lumber and coal yards along the river. The size of the blaze generated extremely strong winds and heat, which ignited rooftops far ahead of the actual flames.

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