Almost 142 years ago, a rapid fire burned down 4 square miles of Chicago. Hundreds lost lives, half a million became homeless, and the city’s infrastructure was eradicated. In a matter of three days a booming nineteenth-century Chicago had become a city of ruins. The damage was widespread, extending from the city’s southwest side to Lincoln Park, estimating damages were over 200 million.
Several accounts state that the fire could have been contained if firefighters and residents reacted swiftly. But several isolated fires had occurred days before and residents believed the fire was not an imminent threat. Urban legend is that the fire started at Mrs. O’Leary’s barn when her cow kicked over a lantern. Although, this story was never confirmed, Mrs. O’Leary barn was the first building to burn from the fire. Mrs. O’Leary story was sensationalized by the media and even became a popular song. Coincidentally, there were fires throughout Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois that same day, which casts doubt on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. In Pershtigo, Wisconsin more than 1000 people died from the fire.
Fires were a huge problem for urban areas because most buildings were constructed of wood and streets were paved with wood blocks and coated with tar. Specifically, most of Chicago’s buildings were constructed of only wood. The fire was the one of the largest US disasters of that era. After the fire, Chicago witnessed unprecedented growth and expansion. The fire helped Chicago to become the architectural powerhouse that it is known as today. For more on the Great Chicago Fire, visit the http://www.greatchicagofire.org.
(Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)