On the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871, a fire started in a barn owned by Chicago residents Patrick and Kate O’Leary. The fire became known as the Great Chicago Fire because of the destruction it caused. You may have heard the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. According to the legend, the cow started the fire by kicking a lantern that Mrs. O’Leary left behind when she finished milking the cow. Yet Mrs. O’Leary claimed she was in bed when the barn caught fire, and even today no evidence exists to dispute her story. No matter how the fire started, in the nineteenth century the city of Chicago was almost destined to burn.
At the time, the city’s population was growing, and contractors built thousands of new buildings. They often put up wooden buildings, which were finished more quickly than those made of materials like stone. Unfortunately, wood also burned quickly—a fact that allowed the fire at the O’Leary barn to spread across the city.
To make matters worse, a fire watchman originally misidentified the fire’s location. Though he tried to correct the mistake, firefighters still went to the wrong place. By the time the firefighters arrived at the barn an hour and a half later, the fire was out of control. Though the fire started west of the Chicago River, winds sent burning debris flying over the river. The flames spread throughout the city.
When the roof of the city’s waterworks collapsed, the water supply was cut off and firefighters brought water in buckets from the river and Lake Michigan. Residents ran for their lives toward Lake Michigan or the prairie west of the city. Ten-year old Fannie Belle Becker remembered, “the heat was so intense that it drove us down to the water’s edge…we sat there until I was almost blind with the dirt and cinders that filled the air.”
Finally, on Monday night rain fell and by the next morning the fire finally stopped. Though grateful that the fire was over, residents who lived through the fire knew it would take time for the city to recover. Jonas Hutchinson, a lawyer, wrote to his mother: “We are in ruins. All the business portion of the city has fallen prey to the fiery fiend. Our magnificent streets for acres and acres lined with elegant structures are a heap of sightless rubbish.”
In addition to the destruction of buildings, the fire took the lives of about 300 people and left about 100,000 people homeless. Other cities sent food and clothing to the needy, though as one survivor noted, “the sufferers are so numerous it is hard to meet their wants.”
Yet the people of Chicago refused to give up on the city. They put up temporary shacks for shelter and set up soup kitchens with donations from other cities. Chicago business owners like Marshall Field eventually replaced their destroyed buildings with grander and safer ones. Construction workers from across the country came to build new houses for residents. By the end of the century, Chicago hosted millions of visitors during the World’s Columbian Exposition, a celebration of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.