…in 1871, on this date, October 8th, disaster flared in Chicago.
The Great Chicago Fire, as rendered by John Chapin (published in Harper’s Weekly)
The Great Chicago Fire was a conflagration that burned from Sunday, October 8, to early Tuesday, October 10, 1871, killing hundreds and destroying about 3.3 square miles (9 km2) in Chicago, Illinois. Though the fire was one of the largest U.S. disasters of the 19th century, the rebuilding that began helped develop Chicago as one of the most populous and economically important American cities.
An 1868 map of Chicago, displaying the area destroyed by the deadly, devastating fire.
The fire started at about 21:00 on Sunday, October 8, in or around a small barn 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. In 1893, Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter who wrote the O’Leary account, admitted he had made it up as colorful copy. The barn was the first building to be consumed by the fire, but the official report could not determine the exact cause.
There has been speculation as to whether the cause of the fire was related to other fires that began the same day.
The fire’s spread was aided by the city’s use of wood as the predominant building material, a drought prior to the fire, and strong winds from the southwest that carried flying embers toward the heart of the city. More than ⅔ of the structures in Chicago at the time of the fire were made entirely of wood. Most houses and buildings were topped with highly flammable tar or shingle roofs. Most Chicago architects modeled wooden building exteriors after another material using ornate, decorative carvings. All the city’s sidewalks and roads were also made completely out of wood. The city did not react quickly enough, and at first, residents were not concerned about it, not realizing the high risk of conditions. The firefighters were tired from having fought a fire the day before. The firefighters fought the flames through the entire day and became exhausted. As the fire jumped to a nearby neighborhood, it began to destroy mansions, houses and apartments, most made of wood and dried out from the drought. After two days of the fire burning out of control, rain helped douse the remaining fire. City officials estimated that more than 300 people died in the fire and more than 100,000 were left homeless. More than four square miles were destroyed by the fire.
The corner of State and Madison Streets, showing the utter destruction.
The fire also led to questions about the developments in the United States. Due to Chicago’s rapid expansion at this time, the fire led to Americans reflecting on industrialization. The Religious point of view said that Americans should return to a more old-fashioned way of life, and that the fire was caused by people ignoring morality. Many Americans on the other hand believed that a lesson that should be learned from the fire was that cities needed to improve their building techniques. Frederick Law Olsmsted attributed this to Chicago’s style of building:
“Chicago had a weakness for “big things,” and liked to think that it was outbuilding New York. It did a great deal of commercial advertising in its house-tops. The faults of construction as well as of art in its great showy buildings must have been numerous. Their walls were thin, and were overweighted with gross and coarse misornamentation.”
A Chicago Tribune editorial published after the Great Fire, stated the obvious…and Chicagoans took that message to heart, as rebuilding began almost immediately.
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Chicago is not my hometown, but I feel it is important to know some history about wherever I live.
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