According the legend, the Great Chicago Fire was started by a cow that belonged to an Irishwoman named Catherine O’Leary. She ran a neighborhood milk business from the barn behind her home and carelessly leaving a kerosene lantern in the barn after her evening milking, a cow kicked over it over and ignited the hay on the floor. Of course, no proof of this story has ever been offered, other than the testimony of a neighborhood liar, but the legend took hold in Chicago and was told around the world. Regardless of how the fire started though, on Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, Chicago became a city in flames.
In 1871, Chicago was truly a boom town. It had become one of the fastest growing cities in America and because of this, construction standards had been “loose” to say the least. Beyond the downtown area, the city was miles and miles of rickety wooden structures. Most of the working-class neighborhoods consisted of wooden cottages and tenement houses, all of which made for dangerous fuel in the event of a fire. However, Chicago was not wooden “shantytown”, although even the downtown hotels, banks, theaters and stores needed constant repair. Just a month before the Great Fire, the Chicago TRIBUNE had remarked on the shabby construction of the brick and stone downtown buildings. The newspaper warned that they were weak and seemed to be falling apart and mentioned that hardly a week passed when some stone facade or cornice was not falling into the street, narrowly missing the skull of some hapless pedestrian.
And, they said, if the city didn’t fall down, it was liable to burn! “The absence of rain for three weeks, “ reported the TRIBUNE, “has left everything in so flammable a condition that a spark might set a fire that would sweep from end to end of the city”.
Although ignoring the legend of the O’Leary cow, the Great Chicago Fire did break out in the vicinity of the O’Leary home at 137 De Koven Street on the west side. The home and barn were located in what was then called the “West Division”, and area of the city that was west of the south branch of the river. Whether the cow kicked over the lantern or not, conditions were perfect for a fire. The summer had been dry and less than three inches of rain had fallen between July and October.
There had been other fires in the city already. On the previous day, October 7, four blocks of the city had burned. This conflagration was said to have left the fire department so exhausted that they were slow to respond to another alarm at De Koven Street. By the time they arrived, it was already too late. By 10:30 that evening, it was reported that the fire was officially out of control. A strong, dry wind from the southwest made matters even worse, blowing the fire toward the very heart of the city. In what seemed like minutes, mills and factories along the river were on fire. Additional buildings, hit by fiery missiles from the main blaze, also began burning from top to bottom. The air was filled with sparks and cinders that contemporary accounts described as looking like “red rain”.
In just over an hour, the west side of the city was in ashes and the fire showed no signs of slowing down. It hungrily jumped the Chicago River and pushed toward the center of the city. Among the first buildings to be engulfed was the new Parmalee Omnibus and Stage Company at the southeast corner of Jackson and Franklin Streets. A flying brand also struck the South Side Gas Works and soon this structure burst into flames, creating a new and larger center for the fire. At this point, even the grease and oil-covered river caught fire and the surface of the water shimmered with heat and flames. In moments, the fire also spread to the banks and office buildings along LaSalle Street.
Soon, the inferno became impossible to battle with more than a dozen different locations burning at once. The fire swept through Wells, Market and Franklin Streets, igniting more than 500 different buildings. One by one, these great structures fell. The TRIBUNE building, long vaunted as “fire proof”, was turned into a smoking ruin as were the great hotels like the Palmer House, the Tremont and the Sherman. Marshall Field’s grand department store, along with hundreds of other businesses, were reduced to blazing ash.
In the early morning hours of Monday, the fire reached the courthouse, which stood in a block surrounded by LaSalle, Clark, Randolph and Washington Streets. A burning timber landed on the building’s wooden cupola and the soon turned into a fire that blazed out of control. The building was ordered evacuated. The prisoners, who had begun to scream and shake the bars of their cells as smoke filled the air, were released. Most of them were allowed to simply go free but the most dangerous of them were shackled and taken away under guard. Just after 2:00 AM, the bell of the courthouse tolled for the last time and it crashed through the remains of the building to the ground beneath it. The roaring sound made by the building’s collapse was reportedly heard more than a mile away.
Around this same time, the State Street Bridge, leading to the north side, also caught fire and soon the fire began to devours the area on the north side of the river as well. Soon, stables, warehouse and breweries were also burning. Then, the fire swept into the luxurious residential district surrounding Cass, Huron, Ontario, Rush and Dearborn Streets. Here, stood the mansions of some of Chicago’s oldest and most prominent families. By daylight, these beautiful homes were nothing but ruins.
By 3:00 AM that morning, the pumps at the Waterworks on Pine Street had been destroyed and by Monday evening, the only intact structure for blocks was the gothic stone Water Tower. Somehow, it managed to survive the devastation. Legend has it that this structure is haunted today by the ghost of a man who stayed on the job during the fire, continuing to pump the water as the fire got closer. The story goes that this heroic city worker waited until the last possible minute and then took his own life rather than be engulfed in the flames. His ghost has reportedly been seen hanging through an upper window of the tower.
The flames were not the only thing that residents of the city had to worry about either. In the early hours of the fire, looting and violence had broken out in the city. Saloon keepers, hoping that it might prevent their taverns from being destroyed, had foolishly rolled barrels of whiskey out into the streets. Soon, men and women from all classes were staggering in the streets, thoroughly intoxicated. The drunks and the looters did not comprehend the danger they were in however and many were trampled in the streets. Plundered goods were also tossed aside and were lost in the fire, abandoned by the looters as the fire drew near. Although many were injured, the stories of lawlessness were greatly exaggerated in later accounts. They were overblown into stories of lynchings and murders by “villainous Negroes” and Irishmen. The tales were proved to be absolutely false.
Worse perhaps than the looters were the drivers of wagons and carts who charged outrageous prices to haul away household possessions and baggage. This only added to the misery of the fleeing people and compounded the chaos. In his book, CITY OF THE CENTURY, author Donald L. Miller described the scene as the streets thronged with people... crying children searched for their parents... processions of refugees milled everywhere... wealthy ladies panicked, wearing all of the jewelry they owned... immigrant women ran, carrying mattresses on their heads... half-naked prostitutes scurried from rented “cribs” on Wells and Clark Streets.... people carried the sick and the crippled on chairs or on makeshift litters... even the bodies of the dead were transported in coffins or wrapped in bed sheets.... It combined to create a vision that most of us cannot even imagine today.
Thankfully, the fire began to die on the morning of October 10, when steady and soaking rains began to fall on Chicago. The people of the city were devastated, as was the city itself. Over 300 people were dead and another 100,000 were without homes or shelter. The fire had cut a swath through the city that was four miles long and about two-thirds of a mile wide. Over $200 million in property had been destroyed. Records, deeds, archives, libraries and priceless artwork were all lost although a little of it had survived in public and private vaults. In the destruction of the Federal Building, which, among other things, housed the post office, more than $100,000 in currency was burned.
Chicago had become a blasted and charred wasteland.
In the first days after the fire, wild rumors flew about more looting in the city. It was said that criminals were now breaking into safes and vaults in the ruined business district. Local business owners hired Allan Pinkerton to deploy his detectives around the remains of stores and banks and soon, six companies of Federal troops arrived under the command of General Phillip Sheridan to assist in maintaining order. Two days later, Chicago’s Mayor, Roswell Mason, placed the city under martial law, entrusting Sheridan and his troops to watch over it.
Although Sheridan saw no sign of the reported murders and looting, he did recruit a volunteer home guard of about 1000 men to patrol unburned areas of the city. He also enforced a curfew, much to the chagrin of Illinois governor John M. Palmer, who felt that martial law was uncalled for and unnecessary. Mayor Mason was heavily influenced by local business leaders however and ignored Palmer’s order to withdraw the troops. The state of martial law didn’t last for long though. A few days after it went into effect, a local businessman (and one of those responsible for pushing Mason into bringing in Sheridan) was accidentally killed by one of the volunteer home guard. In spite of this, Sheridan did receive orders from President Grant that left four companies of men in the city through the end of the year.
As terrible as the disaster was, Chicago was not dead... merely shaken and stunned. Within days of the fire, rebuilding began on a grand scale. The vigor of the city’s rebirth amazed the rest of the nation and within three years, it once again dominated the western United States. It soared from the ashes like the fable phoenix and became the home of the first skyscraper in 1885, then passed the one million mark in population five years later. The Great Chicago Fire was the beginning of a new metropolis, much greater than it could have ever become if the horrific fire had never happened at all.