Digital History

The Rise of the City

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 Next
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 people died.

Copyright 2016 Digital History