|The Great Chicago Fire of 1871
|Digital History ID 3048|
Legend has it that on the evening of October 7, 1871, Mrs.
Catherine O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern, touching off the
Great Chicago Fire. On the drought-stricken evening that the fire
started, a 30-mile-per-hour wind was blowing from the southwest.
Fanned to ferocity the blazed scorched its way north and east.
Curiously, Mrs. O'Leary's house was almost untouched. Even the
barn where the fire started had only a corner burned out. Today,
the Chicago Fire Academy occupies their place.
The fire raged for 30 hours. The blaze, leaping from house
to house, ultimately destroyed four-and-a-half square miles of
Chicago--some 17,500 buildings. By the time the fire burned itself
out on October 10, the entire business district was destroyed.
Six railroad depots and Marshall Field's department store had
gone up in flames. At times, temperatures reached 1,500 to 1,800
degrees. People were incinerated; limestone disintegrated into
powder. Some 250 people were known dead and another 200 were listed
as missing and 100,000 people were left homeless.
It seems doubtful that Mrs. O'Leary's cow actually started
the fire. It seems likely that this myth, which was popularized
by a 1938 movie "In Old Chicago," was the product of
anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice. Lyrics about Mrs. O'Leary
were written to the tune of "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."
Chicago had thousands of wooden buildings and miles of wood-paved
streets and sidewalks to burn. There was a months-long drought
that year. In 1997, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution
officially exonerating Mrs. O'Leary of blame.
Firefighters were exhausted from battling a 16-hour fire the
previous days. That blaze had injured 30 firefighters. To fight
the new fire, Civil War General Philip Sheridan mobilized private
citizens. When the fire was finally extinguished, he declared
martial law and used guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency
to prevent looting.
The Great Fire overshadowed another huge blaze at the same
time. On October 8, 1871, the most devastating forest fire in
American history swept through northeast Wisconsin. Apparently,
railroad workers clearing land for tracks started a brush fire
that soon became an inferno. Peshtigo, Wisconsin, a lumber town
not far from Green Bay, was devastated along with 16 other
towns and 1.25 million acres of surrounding forest. Nearly 1,200
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