Chicago, IL The Great Fire, Oct 1871

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The Great Chicago Fire was a conflagration that burned from Sunday, October 8, to early Tuesday, October 10, 1871. The fire killed up to 300 people, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles of Chicago, Illinois, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless. Though the fire was one of the largest U.S. disasters of the 19th century, and destroyed much of the city's central business district, Chicago was rebuilt and continued to grow as one of the most populous and economically important American cities. The very night the fire broke out, an even deadlier fire annihilated Peshtigo, Wisconsin and other villages and towns north of the city Green Bay.

The fire started at about 9:00 P.M, October 8, in or around a small barn that bordered the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street.The traditional account of the origin of the fire is that it was started by a cow kicking over a lantern in the barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O'Leary. In 1893, Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter who wrote the O'Leary account, admitted he had made it up as colorful copy.  The shed next to the O'Learys' was the first building to be consumed by the fire, but the official report could not find the exact cause. There has, however, been some speculation that would suggest that the fire was caused by a person, instead of a cow.

The fire's spread was aided by the city's use of wood as the predominant building material in a style called balloon frame, a drought before the fire, and strong southwest winds that carried flying embers toward the heart of the city. More than two thirds of the structures in Chicago at the time of the fire were made entirely of wood. Most houses and buildings were topped with highly flammable tar or shingle roofs. All the city's sidewalks and many roads were made of wood.  Compounding this problem, Chicago had only received an inch of rain from July 4 to October 9 causing severe drought conditions.

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, but due to an error by the watchman, Matthias Schaffer, the firefighters were sent to the wrong place, allowing 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.These factors combined to turn a small barn fire into a large scale conflagration.  --

Read articles about the Great Chicago Fire, Oct 7-10, 1871 (below)