“City on Fire: Chicago 1871”

Lithograph by Currier and Ives entitled Chicago in Flames. Scene from the Chicago fire of 1871.

From its humble beginnings as a settlement founded by the Haitian Afro-Frenchman Jean Baptiste Point du Sable in the late 18th century, Chicago experienced explosive growth in the 19th century to become a hub for American economic and industrial innovation and prosperity. When wars and forced evictions of the region’s indigenous people opened up land for settlement, Chicago experienced explosive population growth and emerged as a major trading post in the first half of the 19th century. During the Civil War, Chicago was a hotbed of pro-union sentiment and a major provider of equipment and personnel support for the war effort. After the war, people continued to flock to the city and sought opportunities in industries such as food processing and meat packaging, manufacturing and textiles. The city’s population more than doubled from approx. 112,000 people to nearly 300,000 in the decade before 1871. Immigrants from German, Irish, Scandinavian and British Isles made Chicago a city with a majority abroad. As one of the world’s commercial centers, Chicago was home to a major commodity exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade. Millions of dollars of value were transported daily in and out of the city due to Chicago’s centrality in the country’s railroad network, and the city’s massive working class population and diverse industrial profile made it a hub for organizing labor and activism.

Illustration of the legend of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow kicking over a lamp to start the Chicago fire of 1871, Chicago, Illinois.

On the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871, a small fire broke out in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, which lay behind their little cottage at De Koven and Jefferson Streets in the western division of the town. The relatively minor fire had possibly been extinguished fairly quickly, but the guards in the fire tower in the center triggered the false alarm, and misdirected the firefighters, who were already exhausted from fighting a major fire the previous night. This combined with the hot and dry conditions that had plagued the city since July caused the fire to grow rapidly. A strong southwest wind began to carry the burning embers from building to building. Soon, the fire had grown out of control and jumped across the Chicago River twice. In all, the fire would burn nearly three and a half square miles of the city, destroying approximately 18,000 buildings, leaving 100,000 people homeless and claiming 300 lives before finally burning out on October 10th.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 shows us how, during and after a disaster, people make choices that transform societies and affect themselves and others in lasting ways. Due to decisions made by individuals and builders, in 1871 Chicago was a highly flammable wooden city where fire was a constant threat. Due to the decisions made in the fight against the fire, a combination of misfortune and human error caused it to spread out of control and take its own life. Due to the decisions made by those responsible for the city’s restoration, people were not treated equally in the face of a humanitarian crisis.

Chicago had grown so rapidly in the mid-1800s that fire safety had not kept pace with population growth. Homes to house the influx of newcomers were built entirely of wood and close to small lots with highly flammable materials used for roofing and insulation. The few paved streets and sidewalks that existed at the time were made almost entirely of wood covered with flammable coal tar. Many of the city’s most important public buildings were wooden frames that lacked fire blocking, a technique that prevented flames from running up the walls, with wood-carved ordination decorating their exteriors. Prominent voices, such as Chicago Tribune, sounded the alarm about the potential for a devastating fire. Still others thought Chicago was prepared. Although it was true that the city had made progress in fire preparedness, these advances proved insufficient during the three days of October 1871.

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