Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which killed over 300 people marks 150th anniversary


This past week marked the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which killed about 300 people, incinerated 17,000 buildings, destroyed wide swaths of the city, caused $200million in property damage, and left about a third of its population homeless.

A combination of factors, including the drought conditions that summer, wooden buildings, defective chimneys, and overall carelessness with which people approached fire safety, were all to blame.

‘Basically, it burned down a third of the built-up city,’ Northwestern University professor Carl Smith told The Chicago Tribune.

This past week marked the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which killed some 300 people, incinerated 17,000 buildings, destroyed wide swaths of the city, caused $200million in property damage, and left about a third of its population homeless. The image above from October 1871 shows the ruins in the aftermath of the fire

The conflagration was made possible by a combination of factors, including the drought conditions that summer, the wooden buildings, defective chimneys, and the overall carelessness with which people approached fire safety

The conflagration was made possible by a combination of factors, including the drought conditions that summer, the wooden buildings, defective chimneys, and the overall carelessness with which people approached fire safety

A century-and-a-half later, the Windy City is a bustling, sprawling metropolis with a population of more than 2.7 million - the third highest city population in the United States behind New York and Los Angeles

A century-and-a-half later, the Windy City is a bustling, sprawling metropolis with a population of more than 2.7 million – the third highest city population in the United States behind New York and Los Angeles

The 1871 fire in Chicago destroyed nearly all of downtown and spread to other parts of the city

‘We’re talking about all the newspapers, all the hotels, all the lawyers’ offices, all the theaters, all just gone in 30 hours, and in the most terrifying way.’ 

A century-and-a-half later, the Windy City is a bustling, sprawling metropolis with a population of more than 2.7 million – the third highest in the United States behind New York and Los Angeles.

It boasts some of the country’s tallest skyscrapers and a downtown skyline dotted with high-rise residential and office buildings made of brick, limestone, marble, and Terracotta tile.

In the wake of the fire, wood was banned as a building material in downtown, and architects relied more on fire-proof materials like steel, making it more cost-effective to build skyscrapers rather than rely on the laborious task of masonry.

The image shows the ruins of the Chicago Historical Society library building. The rebuilt structure is seen right on the north side of Ontario Street between Dearborn and Clark Streets in Chicago
The rebuilt structure is seen on the north side of Ontario Street between Dearborn and Clark Streets in Chicago

The image on the left shows the ruins of the Chicago Historical Society library building. The rebuilt structure is seen right on the north side of Ontario Street between Dearborn and Clark Streets in Chicago

The St. Alphonsus Church on West Wellington Avenue in Chicago is seen left after it was destroyed by the fire
The image shows the rebuilt church as it stands today

The St. Alphonsus Church on West Wellington Avenue in Chicago is seen left after it was destroyed by the fire. The image on the right shows the rebuilt church as it stands today

St. James Episcopal Cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago which dates back to the founding of Chicago in the 1830s, was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

St. James Episcopal Cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago which dates back to the founding of Chicago in the 1830s, was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (left). The soot-stained bell tower, which was left standing, was incorporated into the present structure that was rebuilt in 1875

The image shows the ruins of St. Michael's Church in the Old Town section of Chicago

The image on the left shows the ruins of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in the Old Town section of Chicago. The church is one of the few structures in Chicago that survived the fire in 1871

Palmer House sat in ruins after the great fire

The Palmer House hotel sat in ruins after the great fire. It reopened two years later thanks to a $1.7 million loan and stands today as a Hilton hotel, still called Palmer House

Images from today show almost no remnants of that catastrophic event that played out over the course of three days beginning on October 8, 1871.

A DailyMail.com photographer shot several locations throughout the city. A side-by-side comparison shows how modern and industrialized Chicago has become since that time.

The fire started in or near the home of Irish immigrant Catherine O’Leary and her family’s barn. Today, the Chicago Fire Department’s training academy sits on the site where the barn once stood.

A commemorative statue – a 30ft tall bronze sculpture of flames winding toward the sky – is outside the building. 

Legend has it that a cow belonging to O’Leary accidentally kicked over a lantern, causing the fire to spread, but historians say there is no evidence the massive blaze was caused by O’Leary’s cow. 

Indeed, nobody puts much stock in that story these days. In 1997, the Chicago City Council went so far as exonerating the cow and its owner.  While the fire destroyed much of the city, it miraculously spared O’Leary’s house.

‘The family is still mad about how she was treated,’ Peggy Knight, O’Leary’s great-great granddaughter, told The Associated Press Oct. 7, a day before the 150th anniversary of the start of the fire.

The Chicago Post Office on the northwest corner of Dearborn and Monroe was one of several landmarks to suffer devastation

The Chicago Post Office on the northwest corner of Dearborn and Monroe was one of several landmarks to suffer devastation

The image above shows the corner of Dearborn and Monroe in Chicago as it looks today

The image above shows the corner of Dearborn and Monroe in Chicago as it looks today

The image above shows the destroyed Van Buren Street Bridge in Chicago in 1871

The image above shows the destroyed Van Buren Street Bridge in Chicago in 1871

The Van Buren Street Bridge, one of 18 that spans the Chicago River, is seen above as it stands today

The Van Buren Street Bridge, one of 18 that spans the Chicago River, is seen above as it stands today

‘She did not deserve that.’

How Irish immigrant came to be blamed is a familiar story: She was a victim of prejudice and circumstance. O’Leary was easy to blame because of who she was and what she represented.

‘Irish immigrants were often considered as the dregs of American society in the 1870s. They were easy targets,’ said John Russick, senior vice president of the Chicago History Museum.

The museum recently put on its website an interactive exhibit in which visitors can maneuver around a painting of the fire to, among other things, follow its path.

‘In the mainstream Yankee press she fit into a whole set of existing prejudices,’ said Carl Smith, author of ‘Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City.’ ‘She was poor, an immigrant from Ireland, Catholic and a female.’

The blame continued for years, even though the Chicago Fire Department held a hearing within weeks of the blaze and concluded the cause could not be determined. 

‘The cartoons in the papers made her out to be an Irish drunk,’ said Knight.

The shabby treatment made life so unbearable that the family moved to the far southern edge of the city, where they lived under the name of Walsh, Knight said.

The image above shows the ruins of Drake Block in Chicago after the fire in 1871

The image above shows the ruins of Drake Block in Chicago after the fire in 1871

The image above shows the corner of Madison and Wabash Avenue where Drake Block stood

The image above shows the corner of Madison and Wabash Avenue where Drake Block stood

‘She was exonerated and the whole thing kept going,’ Knight said.

It picked up speed when in the 1890s, someone added lyrics to the song ‘Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight’ that implicated O’Leary and her cow.

‘I call her in my book the fire’s most enduring victim,’ said Smith.

So how did the fire start? Smith said that may never be known.

Others, including Knight, and Richard Bales, author of ‘The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,’ blame a man named Daniel Sullivan, who was the first to sound the alarm about the blaze.

Knight believes the one-legged, horse-cart driver known by everyone at the time as ‘Peg Leg’ Sullivan was drinking when he accidentally dropped his cigar in the barn.

Bales has researched property records and read transcripts of the Chicago Fire Department’s hearing in which both Sullivan and O’Leary testified.

Sullivan said he saw the fire from in front of a neighbor’s house, but Bales said photographs and housing tract records show his view would have been blocked. ‘I am 100 percent convinced Daniel Sullivan started the fire,’ he said.

But a mock trial at John Marshall Law School held not long after the City Council’s exoneration of O’Leary ended with a jury just as convinced that Sullivan hadn’t lied about the events of that night.

It all leads Russick to wonder if the choice of the cow as the culprit has, all along, been the city’s way of admitting it doesn’t know what happened.

The area around Court House in Chicago sat in ruins after the historic blaze in October 1871

The area around Court House in Chicago sat in ruins after the historic blaze in October 1871

Now, Clark Street - as seen from the modern courthouse - thrives

Now, Clark Street – as seen from the modern courthouse – thrives

‘To some degree blaming the cow is a way to say it was an accident, that in some ways it was a benign way to say nobody was responsible,’ Russick said.

Then again, he added, ‘We don’t know it was an accident.’

The rebuilding of the city started almost immediately and lasted two years, but there were still many changes that needed to be implemented, including more robust anti-fire building codes.

Chicago was still a young city at that point. It was founded in 1833 and grew rapidly from a small frontier trading post along Lake Michigan to an emerging center of agriculture, manufacturing and transportation.

It was also a key rail link that connected the East and West coasts. By 1870, Chicago grew into the fifth-largest city in the United States, with a population of some 300,000 residents. 

But the fire which devastated the city’s downtown initially did little to alter the city’s course. 

Residents who lived in densely packed neighborhoods continued to build wooden structures lined up next to each other.

Attempts to shift away from wooden construction were met with resistance since the newly arrived immigrants to Chicago, primarily from Germany, wanted to realize the American dream of owning a home.

The image above shows the view of the corner of State Street and Madison Street after the Great Chicago Fire

The image above shows the view of the corner of State Street and Madison Street after the Great Chicago Fire

State Street in Downtown Chicago is seen in the above file photo

State Street in Downtown Chicago is seen in the above file photo

Building and buying a house that wasn’t made of wood was much more expensive, so the city was rebuilt using the same materials that predated the fire.

After the economy rebounded from the Panic of 1873, the city’s charred ruins and destroyed buildings were cleared out and new architecture sprang up.

Another widespread fire in 1874 that destroyed hundreds of buildings south of downtown finally persuaded the city residents that they needed to place more emphasis on fireproofing the structures.

In a weird way, historians said, if the fire never had happened, Chicago would not have grown as rapidly and significantly as it did in those days.

‘I think the fire and the response – all the money that poured into Chicago to do this building – certainly helped the growth,’ Neal Samors, who has written books about the city’s history, told The Chicago Tribune.

‘The city was growing, but if it had not burned down, I don’t see how it would have grown that quickly.’

Samors said that the fire ‘spurred some what we might call urban renewal’ since ‘it burned down a lot of bad buildings.’

‘There’s basically no planning until the Plan of Chicago.’

The 1909 Plan of Chicago, which was put forward by architect Daniel Burnham, is credited with shaping the modern city’s landscape, including its system of parks and the open lakefront.   

The fire of 1871 and another massive fire in the downtown area in 1874 convinced Chicagoans to transition from wooden structures to those made of fireproof material like steel

The fire of 1871 and another massive fire in the downtown area in 1874 convinced Chicagoans to transition from wooden structures to those made of fireproof material like steel

This past week, local residents and visitors to the city were offered bus and architecture tours to mark the anniversary. The Chicago History Museum on Friday opened an exhibit titled ‘City on Fire: Chicago 1871.’

One stop, St. James Cathedral on 65 East Huron Street, still bears singe marks from the fire. 

There’s also traditionally a tour for young children, called the O’Leary’s Fire Truck Tours. 

The event has been commemorated by Chicago’s Major League Soccer team, named the Chicago Fire in 1998.       



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