The Great Chicago Fire was one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. The fire began on October 8, 1871 and burned for two days until October 10th. Much of the city was destroyed in the fire.
Chicago in Flames -- The Rush for Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge by John R. Chapin
How much damage did it cause?
The fire completely destroyed the heart of Chicago including an area four miles long and nearly a mile wide. Over 17,000 buildings were destroyed and 100,000 people were left homeless from the fire. No one is sure how many people died in the fire, but estimates put the number of dead at around 300. The total property damage from the fire was put at $222 million which is over $4 billion when adjusted to 2015 dollars.
Where did the fire begin?
The fire began in a small barn owned by the O'Leary family in the southwest section of the city. No one is quite sure how the fire began. One story tells how a cow named Daisy in the barn kicked over a lantern that started the fire, but this story was likely made up by a reporter. There are lots of other stories explaining the start of the fire including one about men gambling in the barn, someone stealing milk from the barn, and even one about a meteor shower.
How did it spread so fast?
Conditions in Chicago were perfect for a large fire. There had been a long drought before the fire and the city was very dry. The buildings in the city were mostly made of wood and had flammable shingle roofs. Also, there were strong dry winds at the time that helped to carry sparks and embers from one building to the next.
Fighting the Fire
The small fire department of Chicago responded quickly, but were unfortunately sent to the wrong address. By the time they arrived at the O'Leary's barn, the fire had spread to nearby buildings and was out of control. Once the fire grew there was little the firefighters could do. The fire continued to burn until rain arrived and the fire burnt itself out.
Chicago in ruins after the the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 by Unknown
Did any buildings survive?
Very few buildings within the fire zone survived the fire. Today, these surviving buildings are some of the most historic buildings in the city of Chicago. They include the Chicago Water Tower, St. Michael's Church in Old Town, St. Ignatius College, and the Chicago Avenue Pumping Station.
The city received relief donations from around the country and immediately began to rebuild. The local government issued new fire standards and the new buildings were constructed to ensure that a fire like this could never happen again. The rebuilding of the city spurred economic growth and brought in new developers. Within a few years Chicago was rebuilt and the city was expanding rapidly.
Interesting Facts About the Great Chicago Fire
The location where the fire began is now home to the Chicago Fire Academy.
There is a Major League Soccer team called the Chicago Fire.
A reporter named Michael Ahern said that he made up the story about the O'Leary's cow kicking over the lantern because he thought it made an interesting story.
The Chicago Fire Department had 185 firefighters in 1871. Today, the Chicago Fire Department has over 5,000 employees.
There is a sculpture at the site of the start of the fire called "Pillar of Fire" by artist Egon Weiner.