The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 – Research Paper

The 1871 great Chicago fire was one of the most devastating events in the history of Chicago city. It was Sunday, October 8th of 1871, and the time was around 9 PM in the De Koven Street of Western Chicago. A fire was suddenly noticed to be broken out in a barn located at the property of an Irish-immigrant couple Mr. Patrick and Mrs. Catherine O’Leary. The fire soon turned out to be an unstoppable blaze within moments, spreading rapidly across the heart of the city. In spite of all the efforts to stop the spread of fire by the firefighters and the people, the blaze continued its devastation until it was finally stopped by the rain on October 10. The fire caused at least 300 people’s death, destroyed an estimated property of $200 million worth, ravaged 17,450 buildings, and left approximately 100,000 people homeless. Some rapid steps were taken to rebuild the infrastructural and economic bases of the city. The city soon flourished shortly after this huge shock.

Background of the Chicago Fire

There were some obvious reasons for a simple barn fire to turn into a devastating conflagration. As the cheap transportation across the country was made available, the population of Chicago began to grow substantially during the mid nineteenth century. From a number of approximately 30,000 people living in Chicago city in the year 1850, the population grew so much afterwards that, the number became almost 100,000 by the end of the decade. But the infrastructure of the city was unable to accommodate such a huge influx of population. As a result, the cheapest possible material, namely wood, was used to build houses for the newly arriving inhabitants. At the time of the conflagration in the year 1871, almost two thirds of the houses of Chicago were made of wood. Moreover, the houses were topped with highly flammable tar and shingle roofs.

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Chicago city was already suffering from the scarcity of rainfall, only 2.5 centimeters on average from July 4 to October 9 to be exact. As a result, the city experienced a heat wave that summer, causing a severe drought. The plants and wooden houses all around the Chicago city dried up and became perfectly fit as combustible materials to fuel the upcoming devastating conflagration.

Causes of the Great Chicago Fire

There are many theories regarding the origin of the great conflagration. Though none of the common legends regarding it has been declared authentic by the authorities, people used to believe mostly in any of these following culprits to cause the fire:

  • Vandals
  • Milk thieves
  • Spontaneous combustion
  • Drunken neighbor of Patrick O’Leary
  • O’Leary’s legendary cow

Among all these, the most frequently used legend blames Mrs. Catherine O’Leary, an Irish woman living in the roadside of the DeKoven Street of South-western Chicago. The O’leary couple migrated from Ireland. Her husband, Mr Patrick was a farmer, and she herself sold milk door to door from the cows they owned.

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Allegedly, one of the cows of Mrs. O’Leary knocked a lantern of the barn which initially ignited the nearby woods. The fire gradually broke out and reached the roof. The steady Northeastern wind did the remaining job, transporting the fire from roof to roof, from block to block. However, the investigation officers did not find any proof in favor of this allegation against Mrs. O’Leary.

As she herself testified to the investigators, Mrs. O’Leary went to bed as per her daily routine at around 8:30 PM, when she heard the voice of her husband shouting, “the barn is afire!” Then both of them shouted for help and started their attempt to end the rapidly growing blaze that already went far out of their control. The whole neighborhood started to act to control the fire. Fire brigade soon arrived at the spot.

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Another popular legend says that, the milk thieves caused the fire. There was a party going on in the neighborhood. A neighbor of the O’Leary family who lived directly across from their house, Daniel Sullivan, testified in the investigation that suggests this legend. He was attending the nearby party like many others. He went out from the party at around 9:30 PM when he saw the blaze was coming out from the barn of O’Leary family. He was the first one to notice it and to inform Patrick of the fire. He claimed that he saw a person in the barn who was hurrying for some unknown reason. It is therefore suspected that the person came to steal milk from the cows, and in doing so, he mistakenly knocked the lantern in the barn.

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Some other popular legends blame the vandals and the drunken neighbors who were allegedly gambling in the barn. O’Leary’s son explained to the news reporters that neither her mother nor her cow had anything to do with the fire. Rather, it was the result of spontaneous combustion of the green hay. Plenty of green hay was kept in the barn for the cows, and it is the green hay that was to be blamed for the fire to break out. However, as mentioned earlier, none of these legends was mentioned in the investigation report that was prepared by the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners. After questioning 50 eye-witnesses of the incident, they decided to remain inconclusive about the possible origin of the fire, because nothing could be determined certainly.

Prevention Attempts

As mentioned earlier, people collectively attempted to put out the fire by drawing waters with whatever they could find nearby. The firefighters were tired and their equipment was somehow useless because they fought a massive fire just the previous night. By the time they reached the DeKoven Street, the whole of the neighborhood was already consumed by fire. As the fire intensified, the wind became extremely heated. It caused the winds to inflame the objects from heat and by blowing the debris to the intact objects. Thus, the fire gradually got out the firefighter’s control. Finally, the rain began to fall on the evening of 9th October, which cause the gradual decline of blazing fire on October 10th.

The Damage Caused by the Fire

After almost two-day long continuous burning until it was finally stopped by the rain on the 10th of October, the fire literally ravaged the whole city. Approximately 300 people died and 100,000 other were left homeless. An area of about 6 kilometers long and 1 kilometer wide was completely destroyed. More than one hundred roads were destroyed. About 190 sidewalks and 2,000 lampposts were left useless. Though an estimate of 300 deaths were reported by the authorities, the real number was said to be impossible to determine because many dead bodies are supposed to be incinerated.


The recovery of the ravaged city didn’t take long time. The government, wealthy corporations and influential individuals from all around the country and from abroad donated a huge amount of money for the reconstruction of the destroyed city. The city received $450,000 from the New York City, $300,000 from St Louis, 1,000 Guineas from the Common Council of London, and another 7,000 Euros from individual donation.

Some of the brilliant architects, namely, Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, William Holabird, Daniel H. Burnham, John Wellborn Root, and William Le Baron Jenney were requested to contribute to the infrastructural remodeling of the ravaged city. With their epoch-making efforts and hard work, the city soon got a new appearance with some even taller downtown building. Departmental stores, offices and high-class residential buildings flooded the new city. Another new influx of population emigration took place in Chicago. The population grew substantially to become half a million in the year 1880 from only 100,000 in the year of the great fire. Chicago’s continued to attract people in the following years. By 1890, Chicago had become one of the most popular cities of the United States of America with a huge population of approximately 1 million people. It was the second largest in terms of population because only the New York city had a greater number of people.

Therefore, it can be concluded that, in spite of the sorrowful fate of those died of fire, and those lost their huge property, the great fire ignited the development of the city to a great extent. The incident must be considered to be one of the major milestones on the history of Chicago city as well as of the United States of America.

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