Many of us have heard the tale of Mrs. O’Leary’s infamous cow as the driver of one of Chicago’s greatest disasters. Whether or not the beast did in fact start the blaze may never be known, but the fact remains that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 decimated the city over a three day period as it burned from late in the evening on October 8th until the 10th. Much of the city’s wooden infrastructure was consumed like kindling. Today, 150 years after the fire broke out, we can reflect on the devastation that wiped out a third of the windy city, and disrupted the lives of thousands of Chicagoans.
Chicago in 1871, like countless cities of the era, was a wooden one. Many of the buildings which lined the city streets were wooden or trimmed with wood. And the streets themselves were tinder! Over 50 miles of streets were paved with wood and lined beside them were wooden sidewalks. As you might imagine, these conditions made Chicago ripe for a disaster. The vast array of wooden infrastructure combined with the fact that Chicago had been suffering from a dry spell since about Independence Day, left the city primed for the crisis which was about to ignite.
On the evening of October 8th, 1871, a fire broke out on the west side of the city in a barn belonging to the O’Learys. Whether or not a cow is at fault is uncertain, but the combination of dry tinder which composed Chicago at the time, along with a steady wind, allowed the blaze to spread well beyond the O’Leary property. The map above shows Chicago as it stood a little over a decade before the fire broke out. The yellow dot roughly approximates the location of the O’Leary household. Zooming in showcases a very sparse looking portion of the city, but the fire would make quick work of the O’Leary barn and spread north to consume more densely populated areas.
As if a wooden city suffering a dry spell was not enough to contend with, the city’s fire fighting force arrived late to the scene at which the fire broke out. Exhausted from having fought a separate blaze the night before, the firefighters were unable to halt the flames which spread rapidly from the west side of the city. The fire burned through the night of the 8th and lasted until the 10th of October at which point rain showers helped play a part in quelling the chaos.
By the time the flames had been extinguished, nearly a third of Chicago was left in ruins. The fire destroyed more than 17,000 buildings in about 3.5 square miles of the city. It’s quite a feat that only 300 people perished in the disaster considering the scale of property destruction, but the lives of many more Chicagoans were upended quite literally overnight. About 100,000 people, roughly a third of Chicago’s population at that time, was left homeless in the wake of the fire.
While the fact that the flames decimated much of the city cannot be overstated, it is also true that a significant portion of the city was spared. Many of Chicago’s stock and lumber yards, several riverfront mills, and much of the railroad infrastructure was left intact, allowing for economic activity to continue. This in turn helped propel the city’s rebuilding and revitalization efforts. By June of 1873, less than two years after the Great Fire tore through the city, Chicago was celebrating a jubilee to commemorate the success of rebuilding efforts.
Some historians make the case that without the Great Fire of 1871, we would not have our contemporary version of Chicago. The devastation created by the disaster attracted attention, attention attracted money, and of course money attracted people. The city grew exponentially as it rebuilt, and by 1880 the population topped more than 500,000 – roughly 200,000 more than at the time of the fire. The rebuilding efforts that consumed Chicago brought people into the city hoping to make their own mark on what was seen as a nearly fresh slate. So maybe we are all being too hard on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow by recalling her only as the (possible) cause to this tragedy. Maybe instead, she ought to be remembered not just as the instigator that burned Chicago to the ground, but also as the agent which enabled a grander version of the city to rise from the ashes.
- View photographs and prints showing the destruction of the 1871 fire from the Prints and Photographs Division.
- Many songs were written about the Chicago fire; take a look at musical scores of these fire songs from the Music Division.
- Explore a research guide detailing the resources available on the “Great Chicago Fire of 1871” in the Chronicling America digital collection of historic newspapers.