THE GREAT CHICAGO FIRE

A historical summary of the Great Chicago Fire which began on Sunday, October 8, and burned until Tuesday, October 10, 1871.

THE DISASTER


The Great Chicago Fire Mr. & Mrs. Patrick O'Leary's Cottage - No. 137 DeKoven Street Chicago, IL (c1869)
Mr. & Mrs. Patrick O’Leary’s Cottage located at No. 137 DeKoven Street (present day 558 W Dekoven Street) (c1869)
On October 8, 1871 at about 9:00 p.m. in or around a small barn belonging to Patrick and Catherine O’Leary a fire began. The barn bordered the alley behind No. 137 DeKoven Street (present day 558 West DeKoven Street) and a shed next to the barn was the first structure to be consumed by the fire. The fire quickly spread, but the real cause has never been determined by city officials. Over the years there have been several claims about how the blaze began. The most common tale blames Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, who is said to have knocked over a lantern in the barn. Other claims state that a group of men were gambling inside the barn and knocked over a lantern. Another claim alleges the blaze was related to other fires in the Midwest that day.

The predominant method of building structures was called balloon framing which relied heavily on wood for the building material. More than two thirds of the structures in Chicago at the time were constructed using this method.  In addition to the wood, the roofing materials used, such as tar or wood shingles, were highly flammable.  Add in the fact that the city’s sidewalks and most roads were constructed from wood this created a recipe for disaster. Prior to the fire Chicago had received only 1 inch of rain from July 4 to October 9. This caused severe drought conditions and with the strong southwest winds, to help carry flying embers, the fire quickly spread into the heart of the city.

In 1871, the Chicago Fire Department had 185 firefighters with just 17 horse-drawn steam engines to protect the entire city. The initial response by the fire department was quick. However, due to an error by Watchman Matthias Schaffer firefighters were sent to the wrong place. This exacerbated the problem and allowed the fire to grow unchecked.  An alarm sent from the area near the fire also failed to register at the courthouse where the fire watchmen were stationed. The firefighters were also exhausted from having fought numerous small fires and one large fire in the week prior. These factors combined to turn a small barn fire into a conflagration.
The Great Chicago Fire - The City of Chicago as it was Before the Great Chicago Fire (1872)
The City of Chicago as it was before the great conflagration of October 8th, 9th & 10th, 1871. (1872)

SPREAD OF THE FIRE


The Great Chicago Fire Currier & Ives Lithograph Of The Fire (1871)
Currier & Ives lithograph depicting people fleeing across the Randolph Street Bridge facing Northwest. (1871)
When firefighters finally arrived at the O’Leary barn, the fire had spread to neighboring buildings and was rapidly progressing towards the central business district. Firefighters had hoped that an area of land which had previously burned and the South Branch of the Chicago River would act as a natural firebreak. However, lumber yards, warehouses and coal yards in addition to barges and numerous bridges lined the river and helped the fire jump its banks. As the fire grew, the southwest wind intensified and became super heated, causing structures to catch fire from the heat and from burning debris blown by the wind. Around 11:30 p.m., flaming debris blew across the river and landed on roofs and the South Side Gas Works.

With the fire across the river and moving rapidly towards the heart of the city, panic set in. About this time, Mayor Roswell B. Mason sent messages to nearby towns asking for help. When the courthouse caught fire, he ordered the building to be evacuated and the prisoners jailed in the basement to be released. At 2:30 a.m. on the 9th, the cupola of the courthouse collapsed, sending the great bell crashing down.[10] Some witnesses reported hearing the sound from a mile (1.6 km) away.

 

As more buildings succumbed to the flames, a major contributing factor to the fire’s spread was a meteorological phenomenon known as a fire whirl.[11] As overheated air rises, it comes into contact with cooler air and begins to spin creating a tornado-like effect. These fire whirls are likely what drove flaming debris so high and so far. Such debris was blown across the main branch of the Chicago River to a railroad car carrying kerosene.[12] The fire had jumped the river a second time and was now raging across the city’s north side.

Despite the fire spreading and growing rapidly, the city’s firefighters continued to battle the blaze. A short time after the fire jumped the river, a burning piece of timber lodged on the roof of the city’s waterworks. Within minutes, the interior of the building was engulfed in flames and the building was destroyed. With it, the city’s water mains went dry and the city was helpless.[13] The fire burned unchecked from building to building, block to block.

Finally, late into the evening of the 9th, it started to rain, but the fire had already started to burn itself out. The fire had spread to the sparsely populated areas of the north side, having consumed the densely populated areas thoroughly.[14]

The Great Chicago Fire - 1869 Map of Chicago, Showing the Burned Area From the Great Chicago Fire (1871)
1869 Map of Chicago, showing the burned area after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, including the starting point of O’Leary’s barn (red dot). (1871)

THE AFTERMATH


The Great Chicago Fire - The City of Chicago as it was Before the Great Chicago Fire (1872)
The City of Chicago as it was before the great conflagration of October 8th, 9th & 10th, 1871. (1872)
Once the fire had ended, the smoldering remains were still too hot for a survey of the damage. It took several days before the survey could be completed. It was determined that the fire destroyed an area about 4 miles long by approximately .75 miles wide, encompassing an area of more than 2,000 acres. Destroyed were more than 73 miles  of roads, 120 miles of sidewalk, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings and $222 million in property. Of the 300,000 inhabitants, 100,000 were left homeless. 120 bodies were recovered, but the death toll may have been as high as 300. The county coroner speculated that an accurate count was impossible, as some victims may have drowned or had been incinerated, leaving no remains.

 

The Great Chicago Fire Panorama Of City After The Fire (1871)
Panoramic view of city after the fire. (1871)
Operating from the First Congregational Church, city officials and aldermen began taking steps to preserve order in Chicago. Price gouging was a key concern, and in one ordinance, the city set the price of bread at 8¢ for a 12-ounce loaf. Public buildings were opened as places of refuge and saloons closed at 9 p.m. in the evening for the week following the fire. Many people who were left homeless after the incident were never able to get their normal lives back since all their personal papers and belongings burned in the conflagration.
The Great Chicago Fire Temporary Cloth Police Badge (October 10, 1871)
This temporary police badge was issued to special police officer F. A. Winchell on October 10, 1871 at the First Congregational Church in Chicago. It was used the week following the great Chicago Fire. He donated it to the Chicago Historical Society in 1908.

RELIEF EFFORTS


Chicago jumped into action to help from rescue efforts to raising funds. Within two weeks $350,000 was raised for the relief of those families in need. Businesses helped in many ways, for instance Marshall Fields sent blankets to cover the victims and warm those pulled from the river. Storefronts and hotels opened their doors as shelters and medical stations. Phone lines were installed and lists of victims and survivors were compiled and forwarded to the switch board operators at the plant in Cicero.

Western Electric provided compensation to the families by establishing two funds. One was to help with the funeral expenses including cemetery plots and even a new suit if necessary. The other provided funds for food and everyday expenditures. The company gave needed medical care and inoculated over 200 people against typhoid, and adopted a policy of favoring victims’ relatives in application for employment.

Czech, Polish, German, Italian and Swedish immigrants were among the nationalities employed at the Western Electric plant in Cicero. Individual ethnic groups responded and offered assistance. Organizations such as the Masons and Order of the Eastern Star aided with the financial burden of burying the victims as well as supporting and comforting families. An Eastern Star member attended numerous funerals and wrote, “It rained all week at all burials. It seemed as if the heaven was weeping too.”

THE POLICE DEPARTMENT


Chicago Police Department Crest - With Banner (c1880's)
Chicago Police Department Monogram – With Banner (c1880’s)
Almost all police facilities in the loop and territory just north of the Chicago River were destroyed. All police department records, books of accounts, papers, files, and records were destroyed in the fire. The losses in buildings, office and station furniture, and supplies, amounted to $63,500.00. In addition to the losses, a boat-house, six hundred and twenty muskets, and six brass cannon and equipments were also lost. The total value of city property lost in aggregate totaled approximately $75,000.00. Lost, stolen, and unclaimed or held as evidence property lost, in the custody of the Department Custodian, totaled $20,000.00. General Superintendent of Police William Wallace Kennedy established a temporary headquarters in a school house located at Wabash and Harrison Street and the Department carried on as best it could from this location.

When the fire was finally brought under control, the police force was faced with the mammoth task of patrolling and protecting a wasteland extending over 2,100 acres and 100,000 homeless men, women and children.

After the fire, one of the old precinct stations, (the Union Police Station) was reopened as a lodging house for the homeless. Comparatively few people had jobs and those who did took pay cuts. As hunger, homelessness and lack of jobs grew, so did lawlessness. The Police Department likewise felt the pinch. The budget in 1876 was reduced from $639,886 to $534,824. Despite the budget cut, manpower was only decreased from 517 men to 516 men.

The loyalty of the police officers was outstanding. Despite the great odds they faced, the officers did not go out on strike, march in protest, nor did they quit. They displayed great concern for their city and its people. Approximately one-half of the Chicago police force (150 men) lost everything they owned and were left homeless and penniless.

PBA ORGANIZED AFTER CHICAGO FIRE


It was at this time that the Policemen’s Benevolent Association was formed by the officers as a means of mutual protection to provide funds for the injured, sick, and disabled members and their immediate families. The first monthly dues were 50 cents, plus a $2.00 assessment on the death of a member, to be paid to the widow or family of the deceased.

The decade of the 1870’s was plagued with civil unrest and disorder. There were mobs, hysterical oratory and violence as the number of unemployed and strikers increased. And, although some 250 officers were available at any given time to keep the peace, they were challenged by mobs of hundreds. Patrol wagons were not yet in use and there was no way to move officers from one place to another except on foot. Officers were ambushed and assaulted by hoodlums and agitators. The officers often showed up at the station house bloodied, with black eyes and/or torn uniforms.

MEMORIALS & RECOGNITION


The Great Chicago Fire Pillar Of Fire Sculpture (1961)
Bronze sculpture called “Pillar of Fire” by Egon Weiner. (1961)
In 1956, the remaining structures on the original O’Leary property were raised for construction of the Robert J. Quinn Chicago Fire Academy, a training facility for Chicago firefighters. A 33-foot-tall bronze sculpture of stylized flames, entitled “Pillar of Fire” by sculptor Egon Weiner, was erected on the point of origin in 1961.

In 1971, on the 100th anniversary of the fire, a marker plaque was installed at the base of the sculpture and the site was designed a Chicago Landmark for the the origin of the Great Chicago Fire.

The Great Chicago Fire Site Of The Origin Of The Chicago Fire (September 15, 1971)
Plaque designating the origin site of the Great Chicago Fire a landmark. (September 15, 1971)
The Great Chicago Fire Old Water Tower Principal Memorial Plaq
This plaque was erected as a principal memorial of the Great Chicago Fire on the Old Water Tower which survived the fire. (1937)
The Great Chicago Fire Bas Relief On The Michigan Avenue Bridge (1928)
The Great Chicago Fire Bas Relief On The Michigan Avenue Bridge (1928)

VIDEO


Produced by: You Are There, 1955
Produced by: Universal International News, 1955
Produced by: The Weather Channel, 2011
Produced by: Universal International News, 1955
Reference Sources

  • Chicago Police Star Magazine (July 1976). “Police Facilities Destroyed.” Retrieved from ChicagoCop.com. Accessed July 18, 2017.
  • The History Blog. “The Great Chicago Fire started 141 years ago today.” Retrieved from www.TheHistoryBlog.com. Accessed 18 July 2017.
  • Wikipedia. “Great Chicago Fire.” Retrieved from Wikipedia.com. Accessed 18 July 2017.