This Day in History: The Great Chicago Fire

On this day in 1871, a fire rages. The Great Chicago Fire would kill 300 people and destroy nearly 3.5 square miles of the city. One in three residents would be left homeless. The city would rebuild, but the tragedy would change Chicago forever.

In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, will Houston and Puerto Rico witness some of the same far-reaching changes that Chicago experienced in the late 1800s?

How did the Chicago fire start? A legend grew that a woman by the name of Kate O’Leary was the culprit. Reportedly, she’d been milking her cow when the cow kicked over a lantern, setting a barn ablaze. A drought, strong winds, and poorly constructed buildings did the rest.

In reality, no one knows what started it. But we do know that a fire started on the night of October 8. By 10:30, it was spinning out of control. By 11:30, the flames had leapt the Chicago River and were devastating the South Side.

“[The fire] began to exhibit what firefighters call a convection effect,” one historian explains, “the physics and chemistry of a giant conflagration that produce a concentrated thermal updraft—a phenomenon that allows a massive blaze to generate its own forward motion. . . . [It had] become a firestorm.”

At first, people didn’t realize that the fire was so unusual. But as the firestorm began sweeping down streets, people literally ran for their lives. Some tried to carry possessions. Others tried, but then dropped what they carried as they ran. The avenues of escape were closing.

It must have been unimaginable.

“All concur,” one Reverend said, “in declaring that language fails to do justice to the rush and roar of the elemental forces.” A local historian echoed the sentiment: “[I]t is not possible for those who saw the city burned; and saw it re-built, to describe the scene so as to make it appear real to others. Indeed, they can not make it real to themselves, for both the burning and the re-building were so far out of and beyond all the ordinary experiences of life . . . .”

The city was like a torch, waiting to be lit. It had been in the midst of an economic boom, so too many buildings had been built quickly. The structures were flimsy and did not withstand the fire very well. Worse, too many buildings and sidewalks were made of wood. “The style of constructing buildings throughout the city,” a Fire Department report would conclude, “is generally too unsubstantial. In very many cases, ornament is substituted for strength, and safety is sacrificed for cheapness.”

The city would pay for that shoddy construction. The Great Chicago Fire would begin late on October 8, and it would not burn itself out until the early morning hours of October 10.

Thankfully, it began raining!

It was too little, too late for much of the city. About 2,100 acres of land had been burned. Federal buildings had been destroyed, taking about $1 million in currency with them. A jail had burned and its less violent inmates released into the streets to save themselves. Tens of thousands of people were without homes.

Needless to say, Chicagoans were stunned. But they also began to rebuild—they were determined and swift. They implemented new fire codes. They improved their fire department. They worked on infrastructure.

Within 3 years, Chicago was back—and it was thriving as never before.

Hard work, perseverance, and determination in the face of tragedy. How AMERICAN.

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