The Great Chicago Fire

Imagine Chicago in 1871: bustling city streets full of men and women hurrying down sidewalks and roads built from wood, an eclectic mix of native-born Americans and immigrants on their way to work, perhaps in a new industry such as steel production. The streets would be much more crowded than they had been just twenty years ago, as Chicago quickly grew from a population of 300 at the time of its founding in 1833 to a population of nearly 350,000 – putting it behind only New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. The dramatic population growth was thanks to a serendipitous combination of new industries and technologies, a location at a crossroads of overland and water-borne shipping, and a general trend of westward expansion of the American population.

Despite the large population, Chicago in 1871 was a mere fraction of the size it is today, stretching from roughly the southern end of today’s Loop in the South to a few blocks north of Lincoln Park, with Halsted as its western border. Neighborhoods were subsequently overcrowded, especially poorer ones near downtown, despite available transportation to Chicago’s outskirts. Like the roads and sidewalks, many buildings were made of wood – a detail that would become devastating on October 8th, 1871.

On this date, in the midst of an unseasonably dry fall, the Great Chicago Fire began near 137 DeKoven Street on the southwest side, a property owned by Irish immigrants Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. While no one has been able to confirm how the fire began, the most popular theory blames the O’Leary’s cow for kicking over a lit lantern in the barn (which was built entirely of wood and housed two tons of coal in addition to hay and straw used to keep the animals fed and comfortable). Scholars have since debunked this theory in favor of others, including a comet in the atmosphere, a false confession from a friend of the O’Leary’s sons, and the possibility that a drunk neighbor was somehow responsible. Although inquisitions questioned 50 people and produced over 1,100 handwritten pages of testimony, investigations were inconclusive.

While no one knows for sure how the fire was started, we do know this: it spread in a flash. The unfortunate combination of dry weather, an abundance of fuel, and a stiff breeze fueled the fire on its way north and towards the lake. The fire needed only a few hours to reach Chicago’s central business district, with the cupola of the city’s courthouse collapsing at 2:20am, causing the massive bell at its top to fall and produce a sound some claimed to have heard from miles away.

The fire raged until the early hours of October 10th, thanks to rain, a natural firebreak in Lake Michigan, and large empty areas on the north side which left the fire without fuel. In total, the fire burned around 3.5 square miles, an area that reached from 21nd St. in the south to Belden Ave. in the north, and to Halsted in the west. The greatest damage was done to the downtown and northern parts of the city; if the fire occurred in modern Chicago (with an area of 234 square miles), it would have burned a little over 1% of the city’s area.

Although firefighters were quick to respond to the initial report, they were misdirected by a watchman, which prevented them from arriving in time to control the fire and helped contribute to its speedy spread. The fire began in an area with coal works, lumberyards, and warehouses- prime areas for a fire to burn – and instead of breaking the fire, the Chicago River’s barges and bridges only contributed to the spread. In addition, Chicago’s infamous wind caused flaming debris to fly through the air and create hurricane-like fire whirls that were extremely difficult to fight.

When the fire was finally quelled, it left a devastating legacy on the country and the world.The Chicago Fire caused 300 deaths, left 100,000 people homeless, destroyed 17,000 structures, and totaled an estimated $200 million in damages, or $4.6 billion in today’s terms. However, the chaos wasn’t finished once the fire was out; the destruction led to widespread looting that was so anarchic that the military was called in to restore order, with martial law being declared on October 11th and remaining in force for several weeks.

In the fire’s immediate aftermath, Joseph Medill (former co-owner and managing editor of the Chicago Tribune) was elected mayor, possibly due to either his promises to overhaul building and fire codes or the fact that the fire destroyed many of Chicago’s voting records, making it difficult to enforce voting laws and allowing people to potentially vote multiple times. Chicago quickly began to rebuild, which spurred an economic revitalization known as“The Great Rebuilding”; the reconstruction was greatly aided by the fact that much of the city’s industry in south side stockyards, lumberyards, and warehouses remained intact after the fire blew north.

In the long term, Chicago’s population growth was undeterred by the fire; in fact, the fire and the economic growth caused by reconstruction may have caused the population to jump to 500,000 less than a decade after the fire and one million by 1890.

Reconstruction, economic growth, and the population explosion proceeded quickly enough that, by 1893, Chicago was hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Exposition boasted the debut of electrically powered buildings, the Ferris Wheel, spray painting, the moving walkway, and an early form of the zipper, much of it an effort to show that Chicago had recovered from the fire and returned to its status as an economic and technological hub.

Today, modern Chicagoans can still see evidence of the Great Chicago Fire throughout the city, such as in many of the downtown structures and skyscrapers that were conceived of by architects working on reconstructing the city. The next time you gaze up at the Gothic features of the Tribune Tower or the French Renaissance details on the Wrigley Building, remember – these landmarks may not be here today if it weren’t for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

To learn more about the history of the Second City and to see Chicago’s architectural landmarks firsthand, join us for an architectural river cruise.

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