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The City Which Would Not Be Cowed: The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

This is a guest post by Sonia Kahn, Library Technician in the Geography and Map Division.

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.

A panoramic view of Chicago showing houses, buildings, boats, trains, etc. Yellowed with aged and tears at corners.

Chicago. Map by Braunhold & Sonne, 1857. Geography and Map Division. This map of Chicago from 1857 depicts a city very different from the concrete jungle it is today. Much of the infrastructure was wooden, and when a fire ignited on the evening of October 8th in the O’Leary’s barn (roughly located by the yellow dot), the flames spread rapidly.

Zoomed in detail of map above with yellow circle around the O'Leary property.

Detail of Chicago. Map by Braunhold & Sonne, 1857. Geography and Map Division. The yellow circle roughly approximates the location of the O’Leary property at which the fire started – 137 DeKoven St.

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.

Ruins after the great fire of Oct. 1871, Chicago – Mrs. O’Leary’s residence. Published by J. Mountford, 1871. Prints and Photographs Division. Miraculously, though the fire began in the barn on the property of the O’Learys, their private cottage somehow managed to escape the blaze.

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.

Chicago, as it is, showing the burnt district. Gaylord Watson, 1871. Geography and Map Division. The map above, printed in 1871, depicts the burned section of Chicago. The location of the O’Leary property, where the fire originated, would be roughly at the small protrusion seen in the lower left portion of the burn zone.

Map showing the burnt district in Chicago : published for the benefit of the Relief Fund. R. P. Studley, [187-?]. Geography and Map Division. The map above was printed in conjunction with one of the many relief efforts which were started to aid the people of Chicago in the wake of the disaster. It also depicts the burned portion of the city. Note the slightly different area covered as compared to the other map of Chicago’s burned district pictured above. The yellow circle, again, depicts the O’Leary property

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.

Chicago Daily Tribune. Jun. 6 1873. Chronicling America. This edition of the Chicago Tribune from June 6, 1873 features a description of the jubilee held to celebrate the rebuilding of the city. You’ll find the story in the right-most column.

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.

Learn More:

Panoramic black and white photo that shows the area burned by the fire as well as an index of buildings.

The great conflagration of Chicago! October 8th and 9th, 1871. Photo by William Shaw, 1871. Prints and Photographs Division.

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