People & Events: The Great Fire of 1871
In the hundred days before October 8, 1871, not much more than an inch of rain had fallen in Chicago. The city at that time was built of wood, and not just the buildings. The roads and sidewalks were essentially planks laid down over mud, all having dried out over a parched summer. As autumn turned, dry leaves covered brown lawns. In preparation for winter, hay was stockpiled for the animals, and wood and kerosene were on-hand for heating and cooking.
"The absence of rain for three weeks [has] left everything in so flammable a condition that a spark might set a fire which would seep from end to end of the city," reported the Chicago Tribune in the Sunday edition.
A strong, steady wind was blowing off the prairie from the Southwest.
All that was needed was a spark.
volunteer fire department had been replaced in 1858 by a full-time professional corps. The new fire department requested new hydrants, larger water mains, more men, two fireboats to patrol the river, spanned by wooden bridges. Another recommendation was for a building inspection department that would point out the many four- or five-story business buildings that were shoddily constructed "firetraps," according to the Tribune. The city refused all of these requests, fearing that higher taxes would restrict the growth of business.
The 185 firefighters in the city battled blazes every day in October 1871, culminating, they thought, in a 17-hour battle to control a fire that burned four city blocks. That fire began on Saturday, October 7, and the fire department did not rest until Sunday morning.
The success of the fire department was predicated on their ability to spot a fire quickly and control it before it spread. On October 8, at about 9 pm, the watchman on duty saw a fire on the west side of the city. The alarm went out, locating the fire on a grid. As he continued to watch, however, he realized that he had mislocated the blaze by about a mile.
The exhausted defenses of the city were coalescing around the wrong location.
On the evening of October 8, 1871, at 137 De Koven Street on Chicago's West Side, a neighbor of Catherine O'Leary saw flames licking up from the O'Leary cow barn.
Within an hour, a block of poor shanties was destroyed and the fire, carried by the wind, began to move north and east, toward downtown. As factories and warehouses caught fire, they fueled ever higher flames. The heat increased and rose, forcing cooler air down. Then, the superheated columns of air began to give themselves spin and create what former mayor William Ogden described as "the fiercest Tornado of Wind ever known to blow here." Although the atmospheric wind was only about 30 miles an hour, these whirling columns of fire blew much faster, ripping the roofs off buildings and flinging them hundreds of yards into the air.
Chunks of flaming debris were spewed across the Chicago River and by midnight, the South Side was in flames. Just a few hours later, another chunk of flaming wood was tossed across the river and landed on a kerosene tanker on the North Side. The residential, wood-constructed North Side was doomed.
Wood burned, stone was reduced to dust or collapsed and crumbled into rubble. Even iron and steel melted. The Palmer House destroyed before officially opening; Marshall Field's store blackened; the McCormick Reaper Works consumed, Ogden's rail yards and lumberyards tinder before the mighty holocaust. A hundred thousand were left homeless.
Trees exploded. Crazed horses flailed wildly, dogs ran around in circles, rats fled out of the wooden sidewalks and were crushed by the stampede of humans. Pigeons were sucked into the whirls of flame.
People fled. The prison was unlocked so that the criminals might survive the night. The rich hired carriage drivers to spirit away their belongings; if they were lucky, they found the drivers and their possessions again. The poor grabbed one or two precious items and -- as often as not -- abandoned them as they frantically sought shelter.
The heat seared through their backs as they ran, roasted their lungs as they tried to draw breath, and seemed to leap ahead, blocking every avenue of escape. Eventually, much of the population found itself at the lake, or in the lake, wading up to waist height to escape the heat and sparks. At the lake that night, factory workers and prostitutes, butchers and merchants, industrialists and the working poor were united in their misfortune.
The New York Tribune reported, "Since yesterday, Chicago has gained another title to prominence. Unequalled before in enterprise and good fortune, she is now unapproachable in calamity."
On the morning of the tenth, rain finally began to fall and the flames were at last extinguished. At least three hundred people -- one in a thousand -- were dead. Over 70,000 buildings and 73 miles of streets were destroyed.
Almost as soon as the ashes settled, and families were reunited, the power brokers of Chicago went back to work, rebuilding their city. State Street was cleared for Potter Palmer's new city plan, and there were plenty of opportunities for architects like Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham and John Root, and William Le Baron Jenney to build the first city of skyscrapers.
Although the city ignored all of the fire department's warnings or recommendations, and even though downtown Chicago was revealed to be a Potemkin village with façades just one brick thick, and though the industrialists had polluted the river with so much grease and oil that it caught fire, the blame for the disaster was pointed squarely at a poor, Irish woman, a newcomer to the city. The rumor that Catherine O'Leary's cow had knocked over a lamp in her barn was invented by reporters who later admitted to their slander. It was too late for Catherine O'Leary, however. She became a recluse, leaving her home only when she had to, until her death in 1895.
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