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The Great Chicago Fire

The following is a guest post by Annie Ross, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a current student of Political Science and International Studies at Northwestern University.

Last October marked the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, an 1871 disaster that forced the reconstruction and reinvention of the city. By the end of the 19th century, a restored Chicago would emerge as one of the most modern and prosperous urban spaces in the United States.

Aerial view of burned and broken buildings with smoke in foreground.

[The Chicago Fire, 1871. Plate no. 3] (c1892). Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.14600.

Major fires were not uncommon during the 19th century: New York City, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis all experienced urban conflagrations just in the 1840s alone. Peshtigo, Wisconsin, experienced a deadly wildfire on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire that killed four to five times as many people as its southern counterpart, and the Library of Congress itself went down in flames twice in the 19th century. It is no surprise, then, that in a personal account of the Chicago Fire, a Chicagoan dismisses an inquiry by a passerby of where the blaze was located, replying, “Why should I care where the fire is… There is a fire every Monday and Thursday in Chicago.”

The prominence of wood building materials and candle-lit lighting fixtures during the 19th century meant that fire was an everyday threat, and the lack of vigorous fire codes certainly did not help. Several fire ordinances existed before 1871 in Chicago, but were limited in terms of their scope and enforcement; these ordinances primarily focused on laying out the selection process for chief warden and the division of the city into six fire districts.

So, when a lantern was supposedly kicked by a cow in Catherine O’Leary’s barn on a particularly dry October night, the flames spread with ease and speed. It took over 24 hours for the raging fire to be extinguished; it would have likely raged for much longer but for a downpour of rain on October 10th. Within this time, however, nearly 300 people perished, one in three Chicagoans were left without a home, and property damage totaled $200 million.

Gray blocks covered by more than half covered in orange showing the fire damaged areas.Text states: Map Showing the Burnt District in Chicago. Published for hte benefit of the Relief Fund by 3d Edition. The R.P.Studley Company, St. Louis.

Map showing the burnt district in Chicago : published for the benefit of the Relief Fund, Saint Louis : R. P. Studley, [187-?]. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g4104c.ct003153.

Despite the grand scale of damage, nobody was held responsible for starting the fire. A nine-day inquiry was held by the board of police and fire commissioners to determine the cause, with key suspects, such as Catherine O’Leary, giving testimonies proclaiming their innocence. Despite the board’s ultimate report that it is “unable to determine” the primary cause of the fire, local legend has held the O’Learys (particularly their cow) responsible ever since. In an attempt to dispel the blame, Chicago’s Committee on Police and Fire officially exonerated Catherine O’Leary and her cow in October of 1997.

Black and white image of fire damaged ground and farm in background.

[Ruins after the great fire of Oct. 1871, Chicago – Mrs. O’Leary’s residence] (1871). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b04891

Following the blaze, the city pushed to bolster its building and fire safety. Not only were there improvements within the fire department’s infrastructure to enhance its firefighting capacity, but there were also additional building codes implemented in an attempt to prevent major fires in the first place. Brick and stone became the go-to building materials in place of wood, and penalties were implemented for a wide range of risky behaviors, such as hindering firemen on the job or carrying open fire through alleyways. One ordinance (Chapter XI, Section 8) addresses the suspected cause of the Great Chicago Fire by decreeing that “No lighted candle or lamp shall be used in any stable, or other place or building, where hay, straw or other combustible materials shall be kept, unless the same shall be well secured in a lantern.”

Many, however, disregarded the new building and fire codes, including Chicago’s Iroquois Theater, where a 1903 fire killed over 600 attendees. To learn more about the fire codes that came out of this deadly blaze, take a look at this blog post from 2015.

View from theater stage towards the burned seats and balconies.

Panorama of Iriquois [i.e. Iroquois] Theater after the fire, Dec. 31, 1903. Henry Albert Ericson, copyright claimant. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.07431.

The Library of Congress has many useful resources about the Great Chicago Fire if you would like to learn more:

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