This Week in History: The Great Chicago Fire


The Windy City, Chi Town, The Second City—Chicago goes by many different names that each reflect the diversity of the city. Chicago, founded in 1833, is one of the Midwest’s oldest cities but now Chicago is known as one of the most modern and fastest growing cities in the United States. Becoming one of America’s most modern cities started with a disaster on the evening of October 8, 1871—The Great Chicago Fire.

Wild speculation

Anti-Irish discrimination was rampant in the 1870s, which led to stereotypes that Irish immigrants were lazy, shifty, drunk, and the list of negative qualities goes on. One immigrant, Mrs. O’Leary, was about to find an unfortunate amount of fame when a fire began on her property, likely in the barn, late one evening.

Although the actual cause is unknown and still disputed, Mrs. O’Leary was quickly blamed, the most popular theory being that while she was milking her cow, it kicked over the lantern that started the fire. After the fire was over, Mrs. O’Leary and her husband were never truly able to escape the pointing fingers.

Fire devils

Chicago had had an unusually dry summer and fall the year of 1871, which led to most of the wood frame buildings in the city becoming incredibly dried out and susceptible to the blaze. The flames from the O’Leary barn quickly made their way northeast on that particularly windy evening. This led to the “fire devils”, as the residents called them, which are what we now call convection spirals that sweep up burning debris and expel it in various directions. More buildings were soon set ablaze by the blazing detritus. The fire was finally over on October 11, as rain, firefighters, and stretches of undeveloped land caused it to slowly go out.

Damage and Rebuilding

The Chicago Fire, or Great Chicago Fire, as it was often called, led to the deaths over an estimated 300 people, only 120 of which were found and identified among the ruins of the city. Almost three and a half miles of the city were burned to the ground and over 17,450 buildings were lost. This fire had left one third of Chicago’s population homeless and destitute, having burned their homes, savings and valuables. Though it was difficult for Chicago to recover and rebuild, the city made the best of the situation.

Attracted to the job opportunities, many architects, both famous and upstarts, flocked to the city. Chicago began to rebuild with new safety regulations, new building styles and materials, and even the first skyscrapers began were built. Chicago entered into a phase known as the Great Rebuilding. Chicago was reimagined into a modern city and set the pace for the famous architecture and building design the city would come to be known for, The Chicago School of Architecture. Though devastating, the Great Chicago Fire led to the renewal of one of America’s most famed cities and fire prevention protocols that helped save lives for decades to come.

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