Great Chicago Fire

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Map of Chicago 1871. The darker area was destroyed by fire.
Ruins after the fire, corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets
Artist's impression of John R. Chapin
The memorial at the place where the fire broke out, with the Chicago Fire Academy in the background

The Great Chicago Fire was a devastating major fire in Chicago , Illinois that raged from October 8-10, 1871, devastating large areas of downtown.


The summer had been very hot and dry, only three centimeters of rain had fallen since July 4th this year. There had already been a major fire the day before, so the water reserves were dangerously low.

The fire broke out at 9 p.m., probably in the barn of the couple Patrick and Catherine O'Leary at 137 DeKoven Street (now 558 West DeKoven, there is a training facility for fire fighters Chicago Fire Academy in this, now rather insignificant, narrow side street ) .

When the fire was reported, the neighbors tried to save O'Leary's house from the flames. Strong winds from the southwest caused neighboring houses to catch fire and the fire spreading towards the city center. The day before the fire, the fire brigade was still in a state of exhaustion, so that warning signals and information were not taken carefully and seriously enough and the efficiency of the extinguishing attempts was therefore rather inadequate. By the time the firefighters reached the scene, the fire had already spread to Taylor Street and Forquer Street in the west. From here it spread out to Clinton Street below Polk Street. At 11:30 p.m., the fire reached Van Buren Street and Canal Street, which adjoined an area that had burned nearly 65,000 square meters in the previous day's fire.

The fire was now at its peak and had already destroyed 1.6 km² of the city. The north was already destroyed by the fire of the day before, the west was protected from the wind and the east was limited by the river. So the fire could have ended here. According to eyewitness reports, however, flying sparks reached over 500-meter-old dilapidated wooden huts and highly flammable materials on Adams and Franklin Streets on the east bank of the river and immediately re-ignited a fire. Other sources report that the river itself caught fire from wooden boats, driftwood and fatty debris floating on the river. The fire also traveled along Polk Street Bridge (which was destroyed as a result and has not been rebuilt to this day) and further to the southern districts of the city.

Up to this point there was little panic among the population. In the north, too, people only watched the fire, which initially did not pose a threat to them. That changed when the fire spread to the east bank. Glowing boards and fireballs fell on Lake Street and Water Street. At 1:00 a.m., the fire reached the municipal buildings on LaSalle Street. First the Chamber of Commerce, then the courthouse, was surrounded by the flames. At 2:15 a.m., the clock tower of the courthouse collapsed. The fire also traveled west along the river on Monday, spreading to Wells Street and forcing the residents of the north to leave their expensive homes and flee. The fire traveled all Monday and night to Fullerton Street and south to Terrace Row.

destroyed Location ( ... Street ) district date Time
Patrick O'Leary's barn Jefferson & DeKoven west Oct 8, 1871 9:30 p.m.
Bateham's Mill Clinton & Harrison west Oct 8, 1871 22:00 O'clock
Parmelee stables Franklin & Jackson south Oct 8, 1871 11:30 p.m.
Gasworks Franklin & Adams south 8th-9th Oct 1871 000:00 o'clock
Conley's patch Franklin & Adams south Oct 9, 1871 012:20 am
Courthouse Clark & ​​Randolph south Oct 9, 1871 01:30 a.m.
Wright's stables State & Kinzie North Oct 9, 1871 02:00 am
Polk Street Polk & Franklin North Oct 9, 1871 02:30 am
Northwestern Elevator Franklin & Kinzie North Oct 9, 1871 07:00 a.m.
Galena Passenger Depot Rush & Kinzie North Oct 9, 1871 07:00 a.m.
Ogden Mansion State & Oak North Oct 9, 1871 09:00 o'clock

One of the few positive twists and turns occurred on Madison Street Bridge. It seemed as if the fire was crossing the river again, this time in an east-west direction to cut a new swath in the western part of the city. But it was stopped by the flour mill on the west side of the bridge, which was permanently cooled by a large steam-powered pump. This pump saved the western part of the city from further destruction because its work prevented the fire from getting behind the mill and destroying the wooden barracks, the wood storage area and other streets.

On Tuesday, October 10th at 10 a.m., heavy rain set in, which finally put out the fire.

The dimensions

( estimated today's value in brackets ) Many of the destroyed buildings were unique architectural features. These included the Chicago Tribune publishing house on Dearborn and Madison Streets. At that time it was already one of the most modern printing houses in the world, having been completed just two years earlier for $ 225,000 ($ 4 million ). With his inventory, two eight-cylinder offset presses and several folding machines, the loss adds up to $ 325,000 ($ 5.5 million )

The Crosby Opera House on State and Washington Streets was even slated to reopen on Monday after a lavish $ 80,000 ($ 1.4 million ) renovation.

The same thing happened at the neighboring McVicker's Theater . Here, too, an extensive renovation was completed weeks earlier.

Buildings that survived the fire or were rebuilt are the water tower and the Unity Church . This was built in 1869, but suffered severe damage. Today it is part of a 40-story complex with condominiums.

Many watercraft were towed to safety during the fire. However, ships worth $ 173,000 (around $ 3 million) were destroyed. A few other ships were also in the center of the fire, but only sank in the river and were later salvaged.

Eventually it was found that the fire had destroyed an area six kilometers long by an average of one kilometer wide - more than eight square kilometers. This area included 120 km of streets, 190 km of sidewalks, 2,000 lampposts, 17,000 buildings, and $ 200 million in property that was one-third the city's value. After the fire, 125 corpses were recovered, estimates ultimately came to 200 to 300 deaths, which was little for these proportions - after all, 100,000 of the 300,000 inhabitants lost their homes.

The fire is said to have exceeded the dimensions of the Moscow city fire during the siege of the city by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1812 .

State Street Conference and City Reconstruction

The morning after the great fire, a number of business people gathered on State Street and stared at the smoking remains of their department stores . Then a conference was held to decide whether to give the almost completely destroyed Chicago a second chance or whether to start all over again at another point under more favorable conditions.

Land speculators like Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard went quickly to rebuild the city. 20 years later, Chicago hosted the World Columbian Exposition .

An enormous amount of timber was required to rebuild the city; Much of it was supplied by the sawmills in Singapore , northeast of Chicago on the other bank of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River . The consequences for Singapore were devastating: The forest around Singapore was completely cut down, so that the town was exposed to the wind and the movements of the sand dunes without protection: Singapore had to be abandoned within a few years; since the end of the 20th century it can no longer be seen that the houses of an earlier village are under the dunes.

Suspected causes of the fire

“Cow and Lantern” theory

A well-known legend tells that the fire started when a lantern in the barn was knocked over by a cow. However, this story was started by a reporter from the Chicago Tribune named Michael Ahern because he believed this story would reach more readers. So he later admitted it in 1893.

During the fire, Catherine (Kate) O'Leary was identified as being responsible for the start of the fire in the barn, which was packed with animals (five cows, a horse, and a calf), a dolly and fuel for the winter. She was the scapegoat : she was a woman, Irish immigrant and Catholic - a combination that was exposed to resentment in Chicago in the political climate of the time. Especially since the wrong newspaper report confirmed the people in their opinion. However, their responsibility has not been officially established. A few years later, in 1897, the Chicago City Council re-investigated and now absolved O'Leary of all guilt.

Sullivan's theory

It has been suggested that boy Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan accidentally started the fire while trying to steal milk from O'Leary's barn. It was also he who reported suspiciously quickly and first of the fire. Investigations of the crime scene show, however, that Sullivan could not see the outbreak of the fire from where he was standing. Shortly before his death, Sullivan is said to have admitted that he started the fire in that barn.

Another rumor has it that Sullivan or Lois M.Cohn, who rolled (and / or smoked) the dice in the barn with O'Leary's son (who later ran a gambling parlor) and other boys, started the fire.

Meteor shower theory

Also on October 8, 1871, Peshtigo , Wisconsin , burned 600 km north. Even Holland, Michigan on the other side of Lake Michigan burnt down on that fateful day.

There has been persistent suspicion that all of these fires were started by a comet . The last theory was put forward in 2004 by physicist Robert Wood, who ascribed the fires to a fragment of comet 3D / Bielas . However, since there is no further evidence that meteors themselves can trigger fires at all, simply because they have become too cool when they hit the surface of the earth, this theory does not find acceptance in science.

Another rumor briefly sparked global terrorists allegedly linked to the Paris Commune .


In 1937, a movie was produced which, with a fictional story about local politics, jealousy and brotherly rivalry, also addresses the fire in its dramatic finale. The film is called In Old Chicago and was filmed with a large cast of stars. He received two Oscars.

Web links

Commons : Great Chicago Fire  - Collection of Pictures, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. 1871 Chicago Fire . Chicagology historian article
  2. ^ Julie Albrecht Royce: Traveling Michigan's Sunset Coast . Dog Ear Publishing, 2007, ISBN 978-1598583212 , pp. 58-59 (accessed December 5, 2018).
  3. a b The O'Leary Legend . Article by the Chicago History Museum (CHM) and Academic and Research Technologies of Northwestern University Information Technology (A&RT)
  4. The Comet and the Chicago Fire, February 6, 2006 (English)
  5. Meteorites Don't Pop Corn on (English)