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Chicago: City of the Century | Article

Chicago on Fire

Chicago Historical Society

Fall 1871: Chicago is a tinderbox. In three months, only an inch of rain has fallen. For days a strong, hot wind has blown in from the southwest. The city of wooden buildings and raised wooden sidewalks is ripe for the fire that will destroy three-quarters of the city. Chicago is about to suffer one of the world's worst urban disasters.

Track the path of the fire and read accounts of people who lived through it, in this interactive timeline and map.


1. Before the fire
The Sunday morning sun rises on four city blocks destroyed by a fire that had burned through the night. The city's 185 firefighters are exhausted. In the last week there have been twenty fires. The firefighters' requests for better equipment and more men have been denied. Their success with controlling fires has relied so far on their quick response.

"I was much interested to pick up large cinders about our house... We learned of the great fire that had occurred the night before... It was a wonder that these huge cinders had come so far, over two miles, and that they had not started other fires." {North Dearborn and Chestnut Streets}— Clarence Augustus Burley, future president, Chicago Historical Society

2. 8:30 -10pm
A fire starts in the O'Leary family's barn at DeKoven and Jefferson Streets. A watchman spots the fire from the courthouse tower, but locates it near Canalport and Halsted. Realizing the error, he tries to change his report. But the telegraph dispatcher, fearing confusion, refuses. Meanwhile a storekeeper near the fire pulls the hook on one of the city's new fire-alarm boxes, but it fails to work. Just before 10pm, seven fire companies arrive -- too late to control the blaze.

"I was at the scene in a few minutes.... The land was thickly studded with one-story frame dwellings, cow stables, pig sties, corncribs, sheds innumerable; every wretched building within four feet of its neighbor, and everything of wood..." {DeKoven and Jefferson Streets] — Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, reporter, Chicago Evening Post

"...the wind was blowing fiercely through Clark Street to the river, and I had some difficulty in getting across the Courthouse square. It could not have been ten o'clock, for they were singing in the Methodist church.... I noticed the glare of the fire on the West Side..." {Sherman House, Randolph and Clark Streets] — Alexander Frear, New York alderman

"In less than ten minutes the fire embraced the area between Jefferson and Clinton for two blocks north, and rapidly pushed eastward to Canal Street." {Polk and Canal Streets], Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1871

3. 10pm - midnight
The fire, fanned by the strong southwest wind, is on the move -- and terrified Chicagoans start to flee. Struggling firefighters are unable to control the flames. By 11:30pm, the raging fire has leapt the southern branch of the Chicago River. It ignites the waste and oil floating on the surface of the water. The many wooden buildings, lumber yards, and dry goods warehouses along the river feed the fire's steady appetite.

"The dogs of hell were upon the housetops of La Salle and Wells streets, just south of Adams, bounding from one to another.... A column of flame would shoot up from a burning building, catch the force of the wind, and strike the next one, which in turn would perform the same direful office for its neighbor." {LaSalle and Adams Streets} — Horace White, editor-in-chief, Chicago Tribune

"...between Van Buren and Polk streets I found the crowd jammed into the thoroughfare solidly. There was a four-story brick house on the east side.... A man on top [was] shouting to the crowd, but whatever he said was lost in the wind.... All I could distinctly hear was, 'burning on both sides of the river...'"{Clark Street between Van Buren and Polk Streets] — Alexander Frear, New York alderman

4. Midnight - 2am
By midnight, the gasworks explodes, fueling the fire and leaving most of the city without lights. Shortly after that, flames engulf Conley's Patch, a poor Irish area of the city, so quickly that many residents are unable to escape. Soon, the supposedly "fire-proof" Courthouse begins to burn. Authorities release prisoners held there. State Street Bridge, a major conduit to the thus-far safe North Side, also begins burning.

"The Madison Street bridge had long before become impassable, and the Randolph was the only outlet.... Drays, wagons, trucks... crowded across in indiscriminate haste. Collisions happened almost every moment..." {Randolph Street Bridge} — Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, reporter, Chicago Evening Post

"...an Irish girl was brought in [to the Sherman House hotel] with her dress nearly all burnt from her person. It had caught on the Courthouse steps from a cinder. When we went out a man in his shirt-sleeves was unhitching [our] horse..." {Sherman House, Randolph and Clark Streets} — Alexander Frear, New York State alderman

"...our office was in the line of the sweeping flames. The inside iron doors were closed on all the windows....We still thought the second floor was safe... [but] the fire burst through... forced its way through the wooden doors, bounded through the hall.... In a few moments the flames rushed like a tornado of fire through the windows..." {Dearborn and Monroe Streets} — Francis William Test, in a letter to his mother

"Our boys ran at full speed, and we followed, crossing State Street Bridge amid a shower of coals.... The crowd thickened every moment; women with babies and bundles, men with kegs of beer -- all jostling, scolding, crying, or swearing..." {State Street Bridge} —Mrs. Alfred Hebard, Iowan traveling through Chicago

"At the corner of Randolph Street was a fire engine standing idly without hose or any appliances for fire fighting, and as I passed a plank about six feet long, all on fire, whirled over and dropped beside it. Huge cinders of like kind were dropping all about and I did not consider it wise to wait." {Randolph and State Streets] — Clarence Augustus Burley, future president, Chicago Historical Society

"As the flames had leaped a vacant space of nearly two hundred feet to get at [the Courthouse] roof, it was evident that most of the business portion of the city must go down." {Dearborn and Madison Streets} — Horace White, editor-in-chief, Chicago Tribune

"The rail of the bridge was broken away. How many people were pushed over the bridge into the water I cannot tell. I myself saw one man stumble under a load of clothing and disappear..." {Lake Street Bridge} — Alexander Frear, New York alderman

5. 2am - 4am
The fire leaps the main branch of the Chicago River and burns fiercely in the North Division. Heat, dust, and cinders drive residents to Lincoln Park and the cemetery at its southern end. By 3am, all hope of saving the city is shattered as the Waterworks goes up in flames. The wooden roof catches fire, and as it breaks apart, it destroys the pumps below. The city's main source of drinking water is contaminated.

"There was a strip of fire between two and three miles long, and a mile wide, hurried along by a wind, sweeping through the business part of this city.... It was a grand sight, and yet an awful one." {Lake Street Bridge} — William Gallagher, Chicago Theological Seminary student

"Tops of all the buildings as well as the street were all a blaze. Chamber of Commerce and cupola of the C & N [Chicago & Northwestern Railway] were a blaze, and flying embers and sheets of flame were born against the Skinner house, and falling would break into a thousand pieces, only to be borne again into some basement, or further down the street by the perfect hurricane of a wind." {Washington and LaSalle Streets } — Cassius Milton Wicker, Chicago & Northwestern Railway freight agent

"The whole neighborhood for blocks around became a 'sea of fire'... the pumping works became an utter wreck, nothing but the naked walls of the building and the broken and blackened skeletons of three engines were left to mark the spot from whence only a few hours before flowed millions of gallons of pure water..." {Waterworks, Chicago Avenue and Pine Street} — DeWitt Cregier, city engineer and future mayor

"...whole squares [were] vanishing as though they were gossamer. Men, women and children rushing frantically in all directions to save their lives -- some away -- but others into traps and places where they were soon surrounded and no retreat left." {Chicago Avenue and St. Clair Street} — William H. Carter, president and commissioner, Board of Public Works

"...we saw a cow head first part way down in a sewer where it had gone to escape the flames (dead of course)." {Chicago Avenue and Dearborn Street} — Mary Kehoe, 16 years old at the time of the fire

"...whole families were huddled around their little piles of furniture, which was all they had left.... Here and there a mother sat clinging to her infant, with one or more little ones, who, exhausted by the prolonged interruptions to their slumbers, were now sleeping,.." {Lake shore, Ontario and St. Clair Streets} — Lambert Tree, Cook County Circuit Court Judge

6. 4am - 6am
Escaping city residents are forced as far east as they can go -- to the edge of Lake Michigan. Clusters of people, belongings, and animals are trapped on the shoreline. People begin to wade into the water as Michigan Avenue blazes steadily. Horse-drawn wagons, furniture, personal belongings, and people clog the wooden plank-lined streets.

"...the heat was so intense that it drove us down to the water's edge and then my uncle... took his hat and poured water on the things to keep them from burning but thousands and thousands of dollar's worth of goods were burned right there.... Although our things were saved we sat there until I was almost blind with the dirt and cinders that filled the air..." {Lake Michigan at Monroe Street} — Fannie Belle Becker, 10 years old at the time of the fire

"I crossed Lake Street bridge to the west, ran north to Kinzie Street bridge, and crossed over east to the North Side, hoping to head off the fire. It had, however, already swept north of me, and was traveling faster than I could go, and I soon came to the conclusion that it would be impossible for me to get east in that direction." {Kinzie and Kingsbury Streets} — William Bross, co-publisher, Chicago Tribune

" ...the immense piles of lumber on the south of us were all afire.... Dense clouds of smoke and cinders rolled over and enveloped us, and it seemed almost impossible to breathe.... Some persons drove their horses into the lake... and men, women, and children waded out and clambered upon the wagons to which the horses were attached, while the lake was lined with people who were standing in the water, all with their backs to the storm of fire..." {Lake shore, Ontario and St. Clair Streets} — Lambert Tree, Cook County Circuit Court Judge

"...I scarcely dared to look right or left, as I kept my seat by holding tightly to the trunk. The horse would not be restrained, and I had to use all my powers to keep on. I was glad to go fast, for the fire behind us raged, and the whole earth, or all we saw of it, was a lurid yellowish red." {Hubbard and LaSalle Streets} — Mary L. Fales, in a letter to her mother

7. 6am -8am
William Ogden's enormous lumber yard and railroad on the river bank burns. The fire spreads to the Illinois Central railroad complex and the McCormick Reaper Works. Thousands of people remain trapped at the lake's edge. North Side residents are pushed farther north to the prairie.

"My remembrance is of a steadily and sullenly advancing wall of smoke shot with fire; of a burning church on Chicago avenue. The steeple was so hot that when it ignited at the base a pillar of flame shot upward to the top." {Chicago Avenue and Clark Street} — A. S. Chapman, 7 years old at the time of the fire

"...we dragged seven trunks, four bundles, four valises, two baskets, and one hamper of provisions into the street and piled them on the wagon. The fire was still more than a quarter of a mile distant.... The low wooden houses were nearly all gone...." {148 Michigan Avenue, between Monroe and Adams Streets} —Horace White, editor-in-chief, Chicago Tribune

"In the early morning men came, tore up carpets to cover the roof, draining both cisterns to keep the carpets wet, hoping if possible to stop the fire at that corner. All said, 'This house will not burn!' but they might as well have tried to quench Vesuvius." {LaSalle and White Streets} — Mrs. Alfred Hebard, Iowan travelling through Chicago

"As I passed up West Madison Street, I met scores of working girls on their way "down town" as usual, bearing their lunch baskets, as if nothing had happened. They saw the fire and smoke before them, but could not believe that the city, with their means of livelihood, had been swept away during that night." {West Madison and Halsted Streets} — Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, reporter, Chicago Evening Post

8. 8am -10am
The only route into the burned center area is now the bridge at Twelfth Street, in Chicago's South Side. The South Loop is full of smoky rubble; the North Side is still burning. Although much of the ground is still too hot to stand on, some men look for belongings where their homes or offices once stood. Lincoln Avenue, a main thoroughfare out of the city, is clogged with homeless city residents.

"It was about 8:30 o'clock. We could see across the river at the cross streets that where yesterday was a populous city was now a mass of smoking ruins. All the way round we encountered thousands of people; but the excitement had given way to a terrible grief and desolation." {Adams and Des Plaines Streets} — Alexander Frear, New York alderman

"There was no running of the street-railroad cars, or other of the signs of life which usually are visible, even on Sabbaths and holidays. The day seemed a dies non — a day burnt out of the history of the city." {Van Buren Street Bridge} — Elias Colbert and Everett Chamberlin, Chicago newspaper reporters

"Just before we left our Oak Street cottage, I saw a great sheet of flame descend on a frame building one block east of our home which seemed to immediately lift, leaving a bare burned spot where the house stood just minutes before." {Oak and Sedgwick Streets} — John J. Healy, 8 years old at the time of the fire

9. 10am -Noon
In order to slow the blaze, General Philip H. Sheridan orders his troops to blow up the remaining buildings in the path of the fire along Michigan Avenue. Terrace Row residents watch as their homes are levelled. Thinking the fire will either die out or that the wind will change direction, many residents hold firm in the North Division, realizing at the last minute that they must flee.

"...father said, 'O, the wind will change.' People were running in crowds past our house, I stood with my baby in my arms and the other children beside me, when a young woman running past with three children, said to me, 'Madam, ain't you going to save those children,' that started me, I went to Father and said I was going to leave at once..." {Wells Street and North Avenue} — Julia Lemos, North Side working mother

"There I sat with a few others by our household goods, calmly awaiting the destruction of our [Terrace Row] property -- one of the most splendid blocks in Chicago... Quickly and grandly [the flames] wrapped up the whole block, and away it floated in black clouds over Lake Michigan." {Congress Street and South Michigan Avenue} —William Bross, Co-publisher, Chicago Tribune

10. Noon - 6 pm
Hordes of people stream north on Lincoln Avenue as the blaze moves further into the North Side. Although the West Side is safe, it is inaccessible from the North Side. Thus, people continue to move north, still in the path of the fire.

"I discovered a vehicle emerging from the smoke.... It proved to be a covered one-horse grocery wagon; and I soon bargained with its driver to take as many as we could get into it, to the West Side, for ten dollars.... The smoke was still so dense that we could see but little... but we saw enough to know that the North Side at least was destroyed..." {Superior and Pine Streets} —Lambert Tree, Cook County Circuit Court Judge

"About noon... our parents decided to try to reach the North Western Station and to get the family to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. We started west... through crowds of people and hundreds of loose horses which had been turned out of the horse-car stables. When we reached... the rolling mills on the west side, the horses were too tired to go further." {Stockton and Diversey Streets} — Ada Rumsey, daughter of a former mayor

11. 6 pm -Midnight
Many city residents who have been fleeing all night and day are forced to run again as the fire reaches the prairie. Most leave behind the possessions they have brought with them. Some bury important items, which they will try to find later. Rain falls Monday night, extinguishing some of the fire.

"...I had to wake the children up, and we had to run again, and leave everything to burn, this time we felt the heat on our backs when we ran, like when one stands with the back to a grate fire..." {Wells Street and North Avenue} — Julia Lemos, North Side working mother

"It was a strange sight as we passed through the burned district that night. All the squares formerly built up solidly were now so many black excavations, while the streets had the appearance of raised turnpikes intersecting each other on a level prairie. All the coalyards were still burning, and gave light enough to travel without difficulty." {South Side} ** No specific info -- could just place on South Side near river's split — Arthur M. Kinzie, grandson of Chicago's first permanent white settler

"There was no sleep for us until we heard the welcome sound of rain against our windows. How our hearts did rise in thankfulness to heaven for rain!" {Cottage Grove Avenue, near 43rd Street} **South of Downtown, c. 3.5 miles, near lakefront (off of map) — Horace White, editor-in-chief, Chicago Tribune

12. After the Fire
As the last of the flames die out, Chicagoans survey their wrecked city. Seventy-three miles of streets and 17,450 buildings have been destroyed. A third of the population is homeless. Some struggle to comprehend the tragedy; others immediately set to the work of rescue and repair.

An official inquiry determines that shoddy construction, lax building inspection, and a poorly-equipped fire department are to blame. Yet many hold Catherine O'Leary responsible, including the press. Although she was in bed the night of the fire, not in the barn with her cow, she will spend the rest of her life — 24 years — a virtual recluse. Over time, her alleged role in the Great Fire passes into legend. 

In 1997 the Chicago City Council will pass a resolution that finally absolves Mrs. O'Leary of any wrongdoing.

More About the Chicago Fire.
"The streets were deserted &  bundles were strewn along the fence.... We saw several dark or black objects laid out on the road and did not know what they were. A man... said that they were the charred bodies of people who had been burned on the bridge and later taken from the water." {Indiana Street Bridge} — Mary Kehoe, 16 years old at the time of the fire

"Not a house remained...as far as the eye could reach.... The telegraph wires lay curled and tangled upon the streets, and here and there was a dead horse, cow, or animal of some kind, which had been overtaken by the fire, and perished. I saw that morning, however, but one dead human body.... It was burned beyond recognition." {Dearborn Street between Ohio and Ontario Streets} — Lambert Tree, Cook County Circuit Court Judge

"...some thousands of loads of merchandise had been saved -- stowed away in tunnels, buried in back alleys, piled up all along the lake shore, strewn in front yards through the avenues, run out of the city in boxcars, and even, in some cases, freighted upon the decks of schooners off the harbor. ...People... were in immediate need of goods and compelled to buy." { } no location -- could place in Lake, near mouth of river? — William A. Croffut, managing editor, the Chicago Evening Post

"For some weeks after the fire we got bread and meat from a Field, Leiter & Co. wagon which came at stated times.... South of that point there was so much debris on the street as to make it impossible for a team and wagon to use it. The bread and meat was given without pay and came from the Relief Association." {Center and Hurlbut Streets} — John J. Healy, 8 years old at the time of the fire

"Desolation stared me in the face at every step, and yet I was much struck with the tone and temper of the people. ...Their courage was wonderful... One and all said, "Chicago must and shall be rebuilt at once." {Madison Street Bridge} — William Bross, Co-publisher, Chicago Tribune

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