What was the Great Chicago Fire? – Causes and Cost

Great Chicago Fire

The Great Chicago Fire. Image: Devastation caused by the Great Fire of Chicago 1871

The Great Chicago Fire was one of the terrible disasters to ever hit the United States. The conflagration, which began on October 8 1871, lasted for over 40 hours. It consumed approximately 2,112 acres of land and caused the death of about 300 people. In addition to that, over 95,000 Chicagoans  were rendered homeless. Experts have indicated that the cost of properties destroyed by the inferno was about $222 million as at that time.

There’s no confirmed report on how this fire came about, but it is widely believed that the harsh weather conditions in the region caused it to spread very fast. The devastating nature of the fire and mystery surrounding this infamous disaster has earned it a place in the history books.

Myths surrounding the origin of the fire

Up to this day, there are no real reports on the exact cause of the fire. Most of the stories are widely based on assumptions and speculations. However, it has been confirmed that the deadly incident began in a barn operated by the O’Leary household on DeKoven Street.

There are about three narratives which try to explain how the fire started. The first and most popular one blames a cow for causing what would be the deadliest fire disaster in the history of the city. According to the tale, the cow, which was being milked by its owner Catherine O’Leary, knocked down a lantern in the barn. It is believed that the fire from the lantern caught up with the dry grasses which later developed into a huge one. The O’Leary family has since denied this speculation.

The other narrative suggests that the fire was part of the numerous fire outbreaks that were recorded in the Midwest on October 8, 1871. It has also been said that the fire was caused by some men who went to the barn to gamble. According to that particular story, one of the men pushed a lantern to the floor which later set the place ablaze.

From two of the three stories mentioned above, it is pretty clear that a fire from a lantern in the barn caused the inferno. But the question is who really knocked the lantern down? Was it the cow? Or the gambling men? Whoever did it caused a huge damage to the city considering the fact that it destroyed more than 16,500 buildings and lots of properties.

Chicago Fire of 1871

Chicago Fire of 1871

What happened when the fire began?

The fire started on Sunday, October 8 1871 and lasted for a couple of days. When a neighbor of the O’Leary family saw the fire around 9 p.m., she alerted the city’s watchtower. The operator at the tower immediately sent a telegraph to the firefighters. Yeah, that looked like a perfect decision. The operator’s inability to inform firefighters closer to the scene proved to be a costly mistake.

Though the fire department acted swiftly, they were late to the scene because they were given the wrong address by Matthias Schaffer, the watchman. By the time they got to the place, the fire had grown and things really looked out of control.

They tried to send a signal to the courthouse, but their attempt proved futile. With less than 200 firefighters and a little over 15 steam pumpers, the Chicago Fire Department was really low on logistics to fight a huge fire.

So, can we blame Schaffer for the spread of the fire? This will be a bit harsh because he also probably received a wrong address. These incidents, coupled with other factors, turned a little fire into a deadly conflagration. Continue reading to find out how the fire was able to destroy a wide area.

The Chicago Fire of 1871

According to investigators, the Great Chicago Fire started in a small barn in southwestern Chicago. The barn belonged to the O’Leary family. Due to miscommunication, the Chicago Fire Department went to the wrong address. By the time they finally made it to the O’Leary’s residence, the fire had already spread its tentacles wide and far. At that point, there was very little that the firemen could do to douse the fire. Image: The cottage of Catherine and Patrick O’Leary on 137 (now 558) W. DeKoven St.

Did you know…?

At the time that fire broke out, the total number of firefighters in the Chicago Fire PD number around 180.

How did the fire spread rapidly?

Despite starting from a small barn, the fire affected an area of 8.55 square kilometer. Many factors contributed to the widespread of the fire across the city. Below are some of these factors:

Low rainfall and dry temperature

The Midwest, including Chicago, experienced one of its hottest moments in the 1870s. It has been reported that from September 16 to October 7, 1871, they recorded about 0. 22″ of rain. As if that wasn’t enough, the region was also hit with intense heat. On the day of the fire, the temperature in the city was around 80 °F (about 26.6 °C).

These conditions proved to be a recipe for disaster. With low humidity, the fire was able to travel fast and far, leaving in its wake a trail of damaged properties in the region.

A city built of wood

Chicago was one of the fastest growing cities in the United States during the 1840s. About four decades later, the city had become a very busy one with lots of business activities which led to an increase in population. In order to match up with the growing demands, there was the need for more places of residence. Since most of the structures were done in a rush, constructors used woods for most of their buildings. It is believed that it was the most affordable and easiest way to tackle their infrastructural needs.

Due to the drought, the woods became very dry. This made it easy for the fire to move from one building to the other. What was once seen as a relatively inexpensive material for the construction of the city turned into a catalyst for the destruction of the city.

Great Chicago Fire

The Great Chicago Fire was fanned by the right conditions at the time. The city at the time was grappling with a very severe drought, making everywhere dry. And since many of the buildings in the city at the time were made of wood, the fire could rage on for several hours. Making matters worse were the strong winds that blew over the city.

Windy condition

As you already know, wind is a major means of spreading fire. The wind condition in the area worsened the whole situation as it served as a vehicle for the spread of the fire. Reports have it that the wind condition at the southwestern part of the city grew as the fire intensified. It is also stated that the wind caused fire whirls which probably carried flaming debris to far places.


One may ask, how did the fire cross the Chicago River? Though the river is a very narrow one, experts have suggested that it was close to impossible for the fire to cross if it wasn’t aided by other materials. Four hours into the fire outbreak, the river caught up in flames. It has been speculated that there was some amount of oily residue floating on the river. This might have come from factories and warehouses located along the banks of the river.

It was also possible that the pollutants were from the homes of the indigenous people. Bear in mind that during that period, settlements had increased due to the thriving economic activities in the city.

The Chicago Fire of 1871

Infamous for being one the worst disasters to hit our nation, the Great Chicago Fire raged from October 8 to October 10, 1871. The fire claimed the lives of about 300 people. It destroyed over 16,500 buildings. It caused more than 90,000 Chicagoans to be homeless. At around $200 million in damages at the time, the fire cost the inhabitants of Chicago over $5.5 billion in today’s dollars.

How did Chicago recover after the disaster?

The Chicago Fire of 1871

The Great Chicago Fire was truly devastating. Following the destruction, Americans across the nation chipped in and lent support to the inhabitants of the city. Relief donations came from all over the country. The fire also resulted in the city’s officials taking a relook at so many things, including building regulations and fire standards. The goal was to prevent a reoccurrence of such a disaster.

Many historians have described the infamous fire outbreak as a blessing in disguise. According to them, the deadly fire caused city authorities to invest a lot into the proper planning and rebuilding of the city. Perhaps without the fire, the reckless and unregulated construction of buildings and other structures would have perpetuated across the city.

After the incident, the city received support from many people and organizations across the country. Immediately, the local government commenced the rebuilding of the city. Authorities adopted a much-improved fire standard. Buildings were now made of concrete materials, and many business owners such as Potter Palmer (1826 – 1902) started raising funds to rebuild the city.

With many houses destroyed, real estate developers and contractors poured into the city, resulting in an early skyscraper and population boom. This boosted the general economy of America’s “Second City”. Image: Chicago, Illinois

Two years after the fire outbreak, Chicago hosted the Inter-State Industrial Exposition, which sold the city to many investors. By the end of 1879, city authorities had granted permits for the constructions of over 10,000 structures. New buildings, worth around $316,220,000, were constructed from 1871 to 1891. These arrangements made way for the numerous skyscrapers that we currently see in the city.

Economic activities started booming and things started looking good. Within a short period, Chicago, which is nicknamed “the Windy City”, recovered from its most devastating disaster.

Great Chicago Fire

City officials came out with new building codes that imposed the usage of more fire-resistant building materials like brick and stone. About a decade after the fire, the investments that poured into the city allowed for high-rise buildings and skyscrapers to be constructed.

However, there are some that say that the city’s landscape would still have changed at the pace it did regardless of the fire. But, it’s possible that such growth and early population boom that was witnessed might not have happened in the way it did.

The Cow Story about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

Great Fire of Chicago

It was alleged that the accident involving Catherine O’Leary’s cow had started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Image: 1871 illustration from Harper’s Magazine depicting how Mrs. O’Leary’s kicked over the lantern in the barn

About two decades after the fire, American journalist Michael Ahern, who at the time was a reporter working for the Chicago Republican, confessed that the cow story about the Great Chicago Fire was all made up. At the time, Ahern believed that embellishing the origins of the Great Chicago Fire went a long way in boosting the O’Leary neighborhood.

And although Ahern never mentioned the owner of the said barn, Mrs. O’Leary’s name was thrown about as she was the owner of the barn. And so a myriad of illustrations and caricatures were made showing how Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked the lantern over. In her testimony, O’Leary stated that she was asleep when the fire started. In the testimony, it was revealed that Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan, a neighbor of the O’Learys, was the one who first noticed the fire. Sullivan quickly informed the O’Learys about the fire.

Because the O’Learys were of Irish descent Many anti-Irish groups in the city made a field day of the event, using it to promote their racist views. Some twisted the story, stating that Mrs. O’Leary were too drunk at the time to even notice the fire. Later investigations revealed that all those accusations were untrue.

Chicago’s flag and the meaning of the four red stars

Flag of Chicago

The Chicago flag was adopted in 1917, Image: The Chicago flag with its four red six-pointed stars.

Adopted in 1917, the Chicago flag today has four stars, with each symbolizing a major event in the city’s history. The second red six-pointed star on the Chicago flag represents/commemorates the loss suffered during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The flag originally began with two red stars in 1917; one representing Fort Dearborn and the other representing the Great Fire of 1871. In the 1930s, two more red stars were added to commemorate two very important landmark events that took place in the city: The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the Century of Progress Exposition of 1933/34.

The Chicago flag was designed by Wallace Rice of the Art Institute of Chicago. His original design had two red stars aligned to the left. Wallace hoped that by doing so room could be left for the addition of red stars in future in order to commemorate landmark events in the city. And the City Council did exactly that in the 1930s.

Chicago’s flag is ubiquitous in the city, and it’s adored by many Chicagoans. As a matter of fact, it is considered one of the most popular city flags in our country, along with the likes of Washington D.C.’s, Denver’s, and Indianapolis’.

Other facts about the Great Chicago Fire

The Chicago Avenue Pumping Station, the St. Michael’s Church in Old Town, and the Chicago Water Tower were some of the few buildings that remained standing after the fire.

Luckily, the many of the major industrial buildings, including the numerous timber and paper-producing firms, of the city remained unscathed during the Great Chicago Fire. As a result, Chicago was able to continue growing its industrial output even after the devastation.

The following are a few more facts about the Chicago Fire of 1871:

  • Less than two decades after the fire, the population of Chicago more than tripled, increasing from about 290,000 to almost 1 million.
  • Major League Soccer (MLS) side Chicago Fire was formed on the exact day that the 126th anniversary of the disaster was observed.
  • The incident inspired the 1938 film titled “In Old Chicago”. The movie was directed by American filmmaker Henry King and starred Tyrone Power and Alice Faye.
  • Catherine O’Leary (c. 1827- 1895) was exonerated by the Chicago City Council in 1997.
  • The location of her barn has been the home of the Chicago Fire Academy since 1956.
  • Five years later, a sculpture titled “Pillar of Fire”, which was designed by Egon Weiner, was erected at the point where the fire began.
Great Chicago Fire

In 1961, Chicago sculptor and academic Egon Weiner (1906-1987) erected a 33-foot-tall (10 m) abstract bronze sculpture to commemorate the loss suffered by the city. The artist called the work “Pillar of Fire”, and it can be found at the site of where the fire began. Ironically, the Chicago Fire Academy sits atop the exact place where the Great Chicago Fire began. Image: Egon Weiner’s sculpture, Pillar of Fire stands next to the Chicago Fire Department

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