Some say the fire was caused by a cow. Others cite bigger factors at play. Regardless of the cause, by the time the flames were extinguished, much of Chicago had been burned to the ground.
“The one thing you can say for sure is that the fire started in the cow barn behind the O’Leary home on De Koven Street,” said Tim Samuelson, a Chicago city historian. But what turned that small barn fire into a conflagration that people around the world still talk about today?
Much of what happened on Oct. 8, 1871, had to do with Chicago’s meteoric rise. In 1840, it was a small town of 4,470 and ranked 92nd in population in the United States. That number grew to nearly 30,000 by 1850, and by 1860 the city shot past the 100,000 mark. In 1870, just a year before the great fire, Chicago was closing in on a population of 300,000, making it the fifth-biggest city in the America — and the fastest-growing city in not only the country but the world.
What led to all of that growth? In three words: location, location, location.
“Chicago was near the center of the country, and near where the waterways and railways met,” Samuelson said. “It was a perfect place for anything and anyone to get anywhere, like the point of the funnel that everything had to get through.”
Timing had a lot to do with it, too. Chicago was growing at precisely the moment America was going through a transformation from a rural to an industrial power. “Chicago was in the right place at the right time,” Samuelson added.
The question still remained: How did all of that life lead to a near-death experience for the city? “[Chicago] had to build and build quickly, and so they built it out of wood,” explained Sarah Marcus of the Chicago History Museum. “It was quick, it was easy, and it was cheap.”
But it wasn’t just Chicago’s explosive growth and the wood houses that led to the city’s greatest disaster.
“Winter was coming, so people were storing up wood in their houses,” explained Ken Little, a retired Chicago firefighter. “They were storing large supplies of flammable material.”
As if those factors weren’t enough, weather played a big part in the story, too.
“It was an exceedingly dry summer and fall,” local meteorologist Tom Skilling said. “Months without rain had parched the city, and a major fire the previous night had exhausted firefighters and damaged equipment.”
The convergence of all of those factors made the Great Chicago Fire not only predictable but nearly inevitable.
Beginnings. By almost all accounts, the fire started on the city’s West Side, near the De Koven Street barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. No one is sure of the cause, but it could have been almost anything, from vandals to a drunken neighbor to that clumsy cow of urban legend.
Within minutes, the blaze roared out of control. Misdirected fire equipment arrived too late, and a steady wind carried the flames and blazing debris from block to block. The wind pushed the fire north and east, all the way to the banks of the Chicago River, which wasn’t very wide but served as an effective barrier for fire protection — just not on this night.
“The Chicago River itself caught fire from the grease and the pollutants on the water,” Samuelson explained. “It was really quite a fire when the river itself starts burning.”
After jumping the Chicago River, a firestorm tore through Chicago’s business district, its heat propelling its own wind. “In areas of extreme heat, the air is rising away from the fire and air rushes in with great force, and essentially you get rotary whirlwinds of fire, which look like tornadoes,” said Skilling.
The watchman rang the bell in the courthouse tower. The sound peeled over the city, with people looking up to see the sky filled with flames. To survive, people tried to outrun the inferno. There was tremendous panic, and even the animals were terrified. No one knew where to run.
By 2:30 a.m., the fire jumped the river a second time, and the wind sent fiery embers to the North District and the city’s only water pumping station. The wooden roof ignited and soon collapsed, knocking out Chicago’s water supply. By 3:30 a.m., all hope of saving large parts of the city was gone.
Nearly 30 hours later, the fire finally died. Some say it was the light rain from a cold front that passed through. Others, particularly firefighters, believe the fire ran out of fuel — there was nothing left to burn.
The losses were staggering: The fire claimed nearly 300 lives, destroyed over 17,000 buildings covering almost 3.5 square miles, and caused over $200 million in damage. Roughly a third of the city lay in ruins, and an equal proportion of the population — nearly 100,000 people — became homeless.
“All the law offices were destroyed, all the major hotels were destroyed, all the major department stores were destroyed, and all the major banks were destroyed,” Skilling noted. “These were the institutions that formed the fabric of the city, and they were all gone.”
“Little appetite for victimhood.” But even as Chicago was smoldering, something happened that was most remarkable about this story — and what most exhibited the character of the city, and the era.
There was no Federal Emergency Management Agency back then — no Illinois Emergency Management, either. There was also little appetite for victimhood and no time to complain. Even before the bricks stopped smoking, the people of Chicago vowed to come back bigger and better than before.
“We have not lost, first, our geography,” Rev. Robert Collyer told his big congregation shortly after the fire. “Nature called the lakes, the forests, the prairies together in convention long before we were born, and they decided that on this spot a great city would be built.”
The fire destroyed much of the city, but not its spirit.
Luckily for Chicagoans, the fire left the stockyards and the meatpacking plants on the South Side unscathed. Known as the Hog Butcher of the World, Chicago processed more meat than any other city on God’s green Earth.
Most of the wharfs, lumberyards, and mills along the Chicago River survived, too, as did two-thirds of the grain elevators. The industries surrounding agriculture and trade kept the city’s finances stable and continued to employ thousands of people.
Most importantly, the vast majority of railroad tracks weren’t damaged. This allowed shipments of building materials and aid to come pouring in from across the country and around the world.
Bankers quickly rallied. Within 48 hours of the fire’s end, 12 of the 29 banks that had been burned to the ground were operating in makeshift facilities.
Bankers were also hard at work raising the capital they needed to rebuild the city. Henry Greenbaum, a local banker, sent letters to investment bankers all over the globe touting Chicago’s great location and the opportunities for anyone who bet on the people of his city.
Merchants large and small immediately set up temporary shops, as rebuilding plans began. Relief poured into the city, even from Chicago’s arch trade rivals, such as St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Chicago did not have a public library before the great fire, but book donations collected in England became part of Chicago’s first free public library — which opened its doors on Jan. 1, 1873. Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Darwin led that effort on behalf of the people of Chicago.
The city was rebuilt at a pace unimaginable by even the city’s most wide-eyed optimists. By 1880, Chicago’s population reached a half million. A flood of talented architects were attracted to Chicago by the post-fire construction opportunities, and many stayed on in the 1880s to design a new generation of buildings.
The advent of structural steel allowed them to build higher and more beautiful towers.
By 1890, only 20 years after the fire, Chicago passed the one-million mark in population, becoming the second-biggest city in America. The population had more than tripled since the Windy City’s darkest night.
The Great Chicago Fire had been followed by the Great Chicago Recovery — a story not told enough in our classrooms. And what made it possible was American ingenuity, optimism, spirit, character — and capitalism itself.
One international skeptic, who watched the death and rebirth of the great city closely, summarized Chicago’s Great Recovery perfectly: “We expected to find traces of ugliness and deformity everywhere, crippled buildings, and lame, limping streets running along a forlorn, crooked condition, waiting for a time to restore their vigor and build up their beauty anew,” wrote British novelist and journalist Lady Duffus Hardy. “But Phoenix-like, the city has risen from the ashes, grander and statelier than ever.”
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.