No The Whole City Didnt Burn Down
More than a few people seem to think the Great Fire burned all of Chicago down. It is sometimes suggested the only building that survived was the Water Tower.
That wasnt quite the case, Samuelson said: The fire did do a great deal of damage, spreading from the OLeary barn at 558 W. De Koven St. on the Near West Side to Downtown and other areas.
People will think that the whole city was destroyed in the fire, Samuelson said. The West Side, except for a little area around the OLeary house, was mostly intact. And there are many buildings that are on the South Side and the West Side that predate the Chicago Fire.
It did burn through most of Downtown, and then it burned its way to the North Side, and then it went almost to a point almost to Fullerton Avenue.
Yet the fire missed buildings even in the neighborhoods it did go through.
Large sections of the city remained perfectly intact, Samuelson said.
The Fire Began In O’leary’s Barn
On the night before the great fire, another major fire broke out that was battled by all the citys fire companies. When that blaze was brought under control it seemed that Chicago had been saved from a major disaster.
And then on Sunday night, October 8, 1871, a fire was spotted in a barn owned by an Irish immigrant family named O’Leary. Alarms were sounded, and a fire company which had just returned from battling the previous night’s fire responded.
There was considerable confusion in dispatching other fire companies, and valuable time was lost. Perhaps the fire at the O’Leary barn could have been contained if the first company responding had not been exhausted, or if other companies had been dispatched to the correct location.
Within a half-hour of the first reports of the fire at O’Leary’s barn, the fire had spread to nearby barns and sheds, and then to a church, which was quickly consumed in flame. At that point, there was no hope of controlling the inferno, and the fire began its destructive march northward toward the heart of Chicago.
The legend took hold that the fire had started when a cow being milked by Mrs. O’Leary had kicked over a kerosene lantern, igniting hay in the O’Leary barn. Years later a newspaper reporter admitted to having made up that story, but to this day the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow endures.
Chicago Fire Department Growth
Chicago established a paid fire department in 1858. By 1866, the fire department consisted of 120 paid members, 125 volunteers, 11 steamers, two hand-powered engines, one hook and ladder truck and 13 hose carts. Water towers were added in 1870.
At the time of the conflagration, the fire department consisted of 216 firefighters operating 17 engines. Paid firefighters generally worked a continuous duty roster, going home only for meals and a day off every 10 days.
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Chicago Was Rebuilt After The Great Fire
Relief efforts were mounted, and the US Army took control of the city, placing it under martial law. Cities in the east sent contributions, and even President Ulysses S. Grant sent $1,000 from his personal funds to the relief effort.
While the Great Chicago Fire was one of the major disasters of the 19th century and a profound blow to the city, the city was rebuilt fairly quickly. And with the rebuilding came better construction and much stricter fire codes. Indeed, the bitter lessons of Chicago’s destruction affected how other cities were managed.
And while the story of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow persists, the real culprits were simply a long summer drought and a sprawling city built of wood.
A Long Summer Drought
The summer of 1871 was very hot, and the city of Chicago suffered under a brutal drought. From early July to the outbreak of the fire in October less than three inches of rain fell on the city, and most of that was in brief showers.
The heat and lack of sustained rainfall put the city in a precarious position as Chicago consisted almost entirely of wooden structures. Lumber was plentiful and cheap in the American Midwest in the mid-1800s, and Chicago was essentially built of timber.
Construction regulations and fire codes were widely ignored. Large sections of the city housed poor immigrants in shabbily constructed shanties, and even the houses of more prosperous citizens tended to be made of wood.
A sprawling city virtually made of wood drying out in a prolonged drought inspired fears at the time. In early September, a month before the fire, the citys most prominent newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, criticized the city for being made of firetraps, adding that many structures were all sham and shingles.
Part of the problem was that Chicago had grown quickly and had not endured a history of fires. New York City, for instance, which had undergone its own great fire in 1835, had learned to enforce building and fire codes.
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Great Chicago Fire Begins
On October 8, 1871, flames spark in the Chicago barn of Patrick and Catherine OLeary, igniting a two-day blaze that kills between 200 and 300 people, destroys 17,450 buildings, leaves 100,000 homeless and causes an estimated $200 million in damages.
Legend has it that a cow kicked over a lantern in the OLeary barn and started the fire, but other theories hold that humans or even a comet may have been responsible for the event that left four square miles of the Windy City, including its business district, in ruins. Dry weather and an abundance of wooden buildings, streets and sidewalks made Chicago vulnerable to fire. The city averaged two fires per day in 1870 there were 20 fires throughout Chicago the week before the Great Fire of 1871.
In 1997, the Chicago City Council exonerated Mrs. OLeary and her cow. She turned into a recluse after the fire, and died in 1895.
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Anna Elizabeth Lewis Hudlun
As the fire of 1871 raged through Chicago, Anna Elizabeth Hudlun went out into the streets to find those in need of aid and comfort. In addition to the many who received assistance, five families, both black and white, found long-term refuge, food,and water under her roof. Hudlun’s kindness, nurturing, and generous contribution to the social welfare of the African American community were well known, and those who knew her affectionately called her “Mother Hudlun.” After the fire, she was givena new title: “Fire Angel.” When a second fire broke out in 1874, destroying most of the homes in the African American neighborhood, Hudlun once again provided shelter, clothing, food, and compassion.
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The Burning Of Downtown Spelled An End To Wooden Buildings In The Loop
Chicago was determined to prevent a repeat of the fire.
Several times throughout the 1870s the city imposed fire limits that prevented or at least tried to prevent people from constructing predominantly wooden buildings near Downtown. Any building that fell within the limits had to be masonry, which is less flammable.
You can sometimes find wood buildings that were built right after the Chicago Fire that were already under construction or finished after they passed the ordinance, Samuelson said. So youll find wooden buildings where it would have been illegal.
One such example is the Green Door Tavern, 678 N. Orleans St.
Yet Downtown, which had been ravaged by the fire, hadnt been as wood-heavy as the new fire limits would make it seem.
The Downtown wasnt as wooden an environment as people make it out to be, Samuelson said. But you did have things like wooden cornices, the decorative tops on buildings. There were wood structures, but many of the buildings were fairly substantial brick buildings.
The fire limits also had the effect of preventing poorer Chicagoans from being able to afford to build cheaper wooden homes near Downtown. With their insurance policies having burned in the fire, they didnt have the funding to rebuild, and they were forced out during the Great Rebuilding, according to National Geographic.
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Chicagos Continued Growth And Safety Improvements
Video: Rebuilding the City
Several years after the fire, the city started to see stricter fire codes, new architecture, and a different urban landscape but, again, at a slow and steady pace.
Architects and builders began to try out new fireproofing methods. According to Larson, both the Chicago Fire of 1871 and the Boston Fire of 1872 proved that using unprotected iron frames in buildings was pretty much useless against a fire. Then, a second fire in Chicago in 1874 destroyed hundreds of buildings south of downtown, finally waking up the city to the importance of fireproofing. The same year, architect Peter Wight ran a fireproofing test on an iron column. The test took place in a terra cotta oven.
Guess what? The terra cotta wasnt hot from the fire, said Larson. Somebody had a shazam moment and said, Why are we using wood? We should be using terra cotta. And the rest is history.
Building with materials such as terra cotta-protected iron, brick, marble, and stone, rather than a simple wooden frame, came at a higher cost. Eventually, New rules are passed that you can’t have wooden houses downtown. As a result of that, people who can’t afford to build brick houses in the downtown move out, said Ellen Shubart, a docent at the Chicago Architecture Center.
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Dont call it a fire sale.
A four-bedroom, four-bathroom Windy City home that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 specifically, one of just three houses in the North Side that dodged the wrath of the days-long conflagration has listed for $2.39 million, its listing brokerage told The Post.
Standing at 2121 N. Hudson Ave. in prime Lincoln Park, this 1869-built residence has since been enlarged by the current owners and they owe their thanks to a Chicago policeman named Richard Bellinger.
Bellinger, the original owner of the property, is said to have saved the structure by dousing it with water and when that ran out, he turned to his stock of cider. With help from his brother-in-law, Bellinger additionally cleared the grounds of dry leaves, tore up a nearby wooden sidewalk and whenever sparks landed, snuffed them.
Whatever the strategy, Bellinger benefited greatly from the outcome. The fire began on Oct. 8 that year and tore through a swath of the city until the early hours of Oct. 10. Chicago had gone months without rain and a fire the night of Oct. 7 left city firefighters exhausted and with their equipment damaged. The blaze began on the West Side of the city, in a barn belonging to Patrick and Catherine OLeary, though its cause remains unknown.
Back in Lincoln Park, this listed home measures 3,650 square feet and stands on a 46-foot lot. Among its original details that remain, a staircase on the outside of the home that leads to the main level.
The Great Chicago Fire: Introduction
Image by John R. Chapin, originally published in an 1871 issue of Harper’s Weekly
The Great Chicago Fire, which burned from October 8-10, 1871, destroyed 3.3 square miles of the city, killed around 300 people, and left 100,000 people homeless. The fire originated in or around a barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary according to legend, the fire started in the barn when a cow Catherine O’Leary was milking kicked over a lantern. This story has been disproven, and the actual cause of the fire remains unknown. The fire spread quickly due to drought conditions and strong winds, and the city’s primarily wooden buildings and sidewalks burned readily.
- Publication Date: 1971
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What Caused The Great Chicago Fire
The true story behind the myth of Mrs. OLeary and her cow
Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. OLeary lit a lantern in the shed.
Her cow kicked it over, then winked her eye and said,
Therell be a hot time in the old town tonight!
An unflattering depiction of Catherine OLeary inside her infamous barn. From The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. OLearys Cow.
There is no known photograph of Catherine OLeary, and who could blame her for shunning the cameras? After those two catastrophic days in October 1871, when more than 2,000 acres of Chicago burned, reporters continually appeared on Mrs. OLearys doorstep, calling her shiftless and worthless and a drunken old hag with dirty hands. Her husband sicced dogs at their ankles and hurled bricks at their heads. P.T. Barnum came knocking to ask her to tour with his circus she reportedly chased him away with a broomstick. Her dubious role in one of the greatest disasters in American history brought her fame she never wanted and couldnt deflect. When she died 24 years later of acute pneumonia, neighbors insisted the true cause was a broken heart.
Chicago in ruins. From http://greatchicagofire.org/
A sympathetic depiction of Catherine OLeary. From The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. OLearys Cow.
Why Do People Blame The Olearys
Its difficult to determine who started the Mrs. OLeary and her cow did it story, but a Chicago journalist named Mike Ahern claimed he did it.
Ahern, who worked for the now defunct Chicago Republican, would claim to have fabricated the story decades after the fire. His story changed throughout the years, though, making it difficult if not impossible to determine what really happened and who made up the Mrs. OLeary tale.
It was not started by a cow kicking over a lamp while Mrs. OLeary was milking the animals, he wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 1911 as part of an anniversary story for the fire.
There had been a social gathering in the neighborhood on the night of the fire, Ahern recounted for the Tribune. Two partygoers snuck into the OLearys shed to steal milk. Thinking they heard someone coming, they ran out, knocking over their lamp and starting the fire, Ahern said.
At various points Ahern claimed he cooked up with some colleagues or blamed others for creating the urban legend, while other sources said other people made up the story, Samuelson said.
As somebody who was one of the last survivors of reporters who covered the fire, he was kind of the go-to guy for whenever there was an anniversary discussions of the history of the fire, Samuelson said. He was perhaps looking for one last bit of fame connected to the fire by saying he made up the story.
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Chicago History Museum Commemorates 150th Anniversary Of Great Chicago Fire In New Exhibition
The Chicago History Museum will commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 in its newest family friendly exhibition. The devastating grief and subsequent growth sparked by the destruction of the fire is remembered in City on Fire: Chicago 1871, opening to the public on Friday, October 8, 2021.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was a pivotal event in the citys history, setting it on a path of unmatched resilience and constant evolution that still defines Chicago today, said Julius L. Jones, lead curator for the exhibition. We are honored to tell this important Chicago story in a way that helps our visitors draw parallels to the present-day.
Beginning on October 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned through the city for three days. After the flames subsided, recovery efforts exposed deep social and economic inequities as more than 100,000 people became homeless, and society placed blame upon the Irish immigrant OLeary family. 150 years later, City on Fire: Chicago 1871 highlights the crucial events and conditions before, during, and after the fire.
For more information on City on Fire: Chicago1871 please visit: www.chicago1871.org
ABOUT THE CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM
Early Chicago: The Great Fire
The Great Chicago Fire started on October 8, 1871. It burned for 36 hours, engulfed 3 1/2 square miles in the center of the city, killed at least 300, left 100,000 homeless and destroyed more that 18,000 buildings.
Three years later, another large fire sent a new group of burned out residents searching for a place to live. Chicago’s forgotten fire of 1874 displaced the majority of black families living in the downtown area. Most of these families then moved toless populated communities on the South Side. Their choice of location would have a major impact on the future housing patterns of African Americans in the city. These new communities would eventually stretch into a long and narrow chain of segregatedneighborhoods known as Chicago’s “Black Belt.”
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After The Great Chicago Fire
Chicago immediately began to take steps to protect the survivors and to begin the rebuilding process. The nation also responded to the reconstruction of Chicago. Although some smaller insurers were unable to pay claims, the large insurers in New York and Europe were able to pay their claims. Moreover, many of the countrys cities donated money and supplies.
Despite the Great Chicago Fire providing the impetus for pushing the fire limits to co-terminate with the city boundaries, the extension of the fire limits to the city boundaries did not occur until after the citys next massive blaze.
On July 14, 1874, the Chicago Fire of 1874, also known as the Second Great Chicago Fire, destroyed 47 acres and 812 homes. This fire consumed an area south of the 1871 fire. The weather conditions were identical warm, dry weather with a wind out of the southwest, just as it was in 1871.
The extension of the fire limits came about because the insurance industry reacted aggressively in the wake of the fire. The nascent National Board of Fire Underwriters demanded that Chicago reorganize the fire department, increase the size of the water mains, and ban all wood construction within the city limits. Moreover, the NBFU urged its member insurance companies to refuse to do business in Chicago until the demands were met. The inability to insure properties moved the city council to respond despite efforts to prevent the extension of the fire limits to the city line.