The Great Chicago Fire was a conflagration that burned from Sunday, October 8, to Tuesday, October 10, 1871. The fire killed up to 300 people, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles (9 km2) of Chicago, Illinois, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless. The fire began in a neighborhood southwest of the city center. A long period of hot, dry, windy conditions, and the wooden construction prevalent in the city lead to a conflagration. The fire leapt the south branch of the Chicago River and destroyed much of central Chicago, and then leapt the main branch of the river consuming the near north side.
Help flowed to the city from near and far after the fire. The City of Chicago improved building codes to stop the rapid spread of fire, and re-built rapidly to those higher standards. A donation from the United Kingdom spurred the establishment of the Chicago Public Library, a free public library system, a contrast to the private, fee for membership libraries common before the fire.
The whole Midwest was parched, caught in the thrall of a mighty drought. Chicago, with its preponderance of wooden buildings, inadequate fire codes and inferior firefighting equipment, was a conflagration waiting to happen. On this Sunday evening, it did.
Blazes had flared up throughout the region that year. One leveled four square blocks along Canal Street the day before, and on the day of Chicago’s disaster, the deadliest fire in American history killed 1,200 people and destroyed Peshtigo, Wis.But the Great Fire was without a doubt the single most important event in the history of Chicago and one of the most spectacular of the 19th Century. It changed more than the look of the city, then a bustling metropolis with a population of some 300,000. It changed the city’s character forever, infusing its inhabitants with a zealous, can-do spirit.
The fire did indeed begin in the barn behind the O’Leary cottage on De Koven Street, near 12th and Halsted Streets.
Despite the familiar legend, the cause of the fire is unknown; Mrs. O’Leary later denied under oath that her much-maligned cow had anything to do with it. Once begun, the blaze was quickly whipped into monster stature by “fire devils,” whirling pockets of gas and air that rolled through the city for two days, knocking down buildings and sending survivors scurrying for safety in the waters of Lake Michigan.
The fire jumped the river twice. Among its prey: Potter Palmer’s hotel, Marshall Field’s Marble Palace, the city’s brothels and the Tribune building, a spanking new, four-story, “fireproof” structure.
Fleeing the flames, terrified men, women and children rushed through the streets. Looters ransacked burning stores, while the bell eerily clanged on at the courthouse, until it, too, succumbed. “The great, dazzling, mounting light, the crash and roar of the conflagration, and the desperate flight of the crowd combined to make a scene of which no intelligent idea can be conveyed in words,” a young journalist, J.E. Chamberlain, wrote.
The fire reached Fullerton Avenue before it petered out that Tuesday morning. Nearly 300 Chicagoans were dead, 90,000 were homeless and 17,450 buildings were destroyed, with damages totally $200 million. Many despaired, and many in rival cities gleefully wrote Chicago off. But, in its first post-fire issue on Oct. 11, the Tribune declared: “Cheer Up . . . looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.”
And it did. Within a week, 6,000 temporary structures were erected. Tribune Editor Joseph Medill was elected mayor in November as the “fireproof” candidate, and before resigning in mid-1873, he oversaw a variety of fire-protection reforms, including a ban on wooden buildings in the business district. Out of the ashes rose new or rebuilt landmarks: a new Palmer House, a new store for Marshall Field, a cavernous exposition building on the lakefront and, throughout the “burnt district,” grander, more elaborate and taller buildings.
But one now-famous structure– a warped and weather-beaten shanty of two rooms–did not need to be rebuilt. Mrs. O’Leary’s cottage survived the fire.