The Chicago Fire1871
A City of Wood Turns to AshesAccording to story and song, the great Chicago fire of October 8-10, 1871, began when a cow kicked over a lantern in Mrs. O'Leary's barn. Indeed, there was a cow in the barn belonging to Patrick and Catherine O'Leary of De Koven Street, Chicago, and the fire did start in that barn. But whether it was caused by Mrs. O'Leary's cow or by spontaneous combustion, or by any other cause, no one knows for certain. Why the fire spread into one of the most terrible disasters in the history of the United States is known, however. One reason was the wind. The blaze started on a warm, dry Sunday evening, and at first the O'Leary's and their neighbors tried to put it out themselves. But after about ten minutes had gone by, one of the neighbors finally ran for the nearest alarm box, about three blocks away, and called the fire department. It took several more minutes for the horse-drawn fire equipment to arrive, and by then a stiff wind had begun to blow, causing the fire to spread to the houses next door. Another reason for the disaster was wood. Although some of Chicago's modern buildings were made of stone or brick, most of the city's homes and commercial buildings were made of fast-burning pine. Moreover, the houses were separated by pine fences, and the unpaved streets were covered with pine blocks. Even the sidewalks were lined with wooden planks. As the wind picked up sparks and debris from burning fences and buildings around the O'Leary's barn, more and more fire equipment was called in. By midnight, three hours after the fire began, 20 city blocks were ablaze. House by house, fence by fence, block by block, Chicago was burning up. There was too much wind, too much wood, too little equipment and, eventually, too little water pressure. About all Chicago's 300,000 residents could do was watch their city disappear. On Monday night, it began to rain, and by Tuesday morning the fire was finally brought under control. The damage was unbelievable. More than 300 people lost their lives, and 18,000 buildings (worth about $200 million) were destroyed. One whole section of the city, four miles long and a mile wide, was completely flattened. The Chicago fire led to better fire alarm systems, better firefighting equipment, new laws for fireproof buildings, and a new high pressure water system. It also led to Fire Prevention Week, which is observed each year during the week that contains October 9 an annual reminder of the terrible Chicago fire of 1871.
Illustration: Thousands flee as Chicago is burnt to the ground.
© 1979. Panarizon Publishing Corp. USA
Illust: Currier & Ives, Museum of City of NY
Printed in Italy 03.012.01 05