Chicago, IL The Great Fire, Origin of the Fire

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The committee appointed, to investigate the origin, progress and devastation of the fire, have made their report. We take from it the following interesting items:
The board find that the fire originated in a two story barn in rear of No. 137 DeKoven street, the premises being owned by Patrick Leary. The fire was first discovered by a drayman by the name of Daniel Sullivan, who saw it while sitting on the sidewalk on the south side of DeKoven street, and nearly opposite Leary's premises. He fixes the time at not more than twenty-five minutes past 9 o'clock, when he first noticed the flames coming out of the barn. There is no proof that any persons had been in the barn after nightfall that evening. Whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night, or was set on fire by human agency, we are unable to determine. Mr. Leary, the owner, and all his family prove to have been in bed and asleep at the time. There was a small party in the front part of Leary's house, which was occupied by Mr. McLaughlin and wife. But we failed to find any evidence that anybody from McLaughlin's part of the house went near the barn that night.

If any person set the fire, either by accident or design, he was careful not to give any alarm. The nearest engine-house was six blocks from the fire; the next nearest one was nine blocks away. The nearest hose house was located eleven blocks from the fire, and at this hose house the watchman had seen the fire before the alarm was given from the Court-House, and the company were on their way to the fire before the alarm was struck.

In consequence of this early sighting of the fire, the hose company (the America) went eleven blocks and attached their hose to the fire-plug and got water on the fire before any engine did, although two engines were located considerably nearer the fire. It would require five minutes for the nearest engine to go to the fire, a distance of six blocks. From three to five minutes more would be required in which to unreel and lay out the hose, make connection with the plug, and go to work. Intelligent citizens who lived near the place of the fire testify that it was from ten to fifteen minutes from the time they first saw the fire before any engines came upon the ground. It is proved that the engines repaired to the fire, after getting the alarm, with the usual celerity. When they arrived there from three to five buildings were fiercely burning. The fire must then have been burning from ten to fifteen minutes, and, with the wind then blowing strongly from the southwest, and carrying the fire from building to building in a neighborhood composed wholly of dry wooden buildings, with wood shavings piled in every barn and under every house, the fire had got under too great headway for the engines called out by the first alarm to be able to subdue it.

Blowing up buildings in the face of the wind was tried, but without any benefit. The Court House and the Water Works, though a mile apart, were burning at the same time. Gunpowder was used in blowing up buildings with good effect, the next day, in cutting off the fire at the extreme south end of it, and preventing it backing any further.

We believe that, had the buildings on the West Side, where the fire commenced, been built of brick or stone, with safe roofing (the buildings need not have been fire-proof), the fire could have been stopped without doing great damage, and certainly would not have crossed the river. After it did cross the wooden cornices, wooden signs of large size, the cupolas, and the tar and felt roofs, which were on most of the best buildings, caused their speedy destruction, and aided greatly in spreading the conflagration. The single set of pumping works, upon which the salvation of the city depended were roofed with wood, had no appliance by which water could be raised to the roof in case of fire, and was one of the earliest buildings to burn in the North Division.


Concerning the origin of the fire, is constructed out of the fact, that in March 1871, three enterprising men visited Chicago for the express purpose of laying before the city authorities a plan for extinguishing fires by means of carbonic acid gas. This gas was to be generated and saved from the same coal that made the illuminating gas. The pipes were to be laid side by side with the others, and the whole theory of the plan was, that when a building took fire, the people were to rush. out, the doors to be closed, the carbonic acid gas to be turned on, which would at once extinguish the fire, without any injury or damage to house or furniture by water, which often does more damage than the fire itself.

These men received some encouragement that their plan would be favorably received and accepted by the city. Extensive works were accordingly constructed, and time and money freely lavished while all through the summer months the men waited, hoping soon to realize immense wealth from their grand project. Late in September they learned that as a final decision the city declined to have any thing to do with the new extinguisher, refusing even to try experiments or allow them to be tried.

On Saturday October 7th those three men passed through New York on their way home - and in a few moments conversation with a friend at the depot, one of them remarked, in a tone half dogged, half reckless, "we have tried our best to do something for Chicago, she has kicked us out, and now she may bear the consequences."

"Where's Harriet and the children?" asked the friend.

"I brought them out to L" (about twenty miles from the city) and they will remain there until I go or send for them."

A. bell rang, the train started, and three hard, desperate cases were lost sight of in the crowded car.

The next morning the whole country thrilled with the news of the Great Conflagration, and two days later Chicago had passed through the fiery furnace.


There is another theory regarding the origin of the fire, to which many persons attach importance, and it is therefore worthy of record. It is the startling theory that a secret organization conceived and matured the diabolical plot for the destruction of the city, and sent their agents here to execute it.... For example, the original explanation of the origin of the fire has been denied by two persons on oath, which is sufficient to disprove the statement in a court of justice. There is abundant evidence going to show that the fire was set in more than one place. A well known lady who resides in the vicinity of the Franklin school, on Division street, states positively that while the fire was progressing north in the North division from the river, she saw a man walk up to the side of the primary school, a frame building in the rear of the Franklin school, turn out a lot of shavings from a bag, and immediately after saw the shavings flaming up.

The lost city! Drama of the fire fiend, or, Chicago, as it was, and as it is! And its glorious future! : a vivid and truthful picture of all of interest connected with the destruction of Chicago and the terrible fires of the great North-west : startling, thrilling incidents, frightful scenes, hair-breadth escapes, individual heroism, self-sacrifices, personal anecdotes, &c., together with a history of Chicago from its origin, statistics of the great fires of the world, &c. by Frank Luzerne, New York: Wells & Co., 1872, Pages 183-186


The origin of the Great Fire 1871

"No such woman or cow probably existed, save in the imagination of some manufacturer of canards". Hmm... let me fill some tidbits in here...
If you look at plat & census records from that time you will see that the people living at 137 DeKoven St. was in fact the O'Leary family (and the McLaughlins). Diagonally on the block is the Sullivan family, my direct ancestors. The O'Leary family (Patrick and Catherine & 5 kids) did in fact have cows in the barn and the story comes from the fact that in a couple weeks prior to this event she did go out to the barn at night (to close it up) & left the lamp in the barn hanging on a nail and when the cows kicked & banged into the side of the stall, it knocked the lantern over and started a small fire. That time she was still on her way inside and was able to get help to put it out from Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan. The O'Leary's, McLaughlins and Sullivans were all neighbors who also shared the same stools at the local tavern to which the story was told to their neighbors. When the Great Fire started on Oct 8th from the same location, O'Leary's barn, it was assumed by the neighbor's that she left the lantern in the barn again, and thus the story was born. When they formally testified, McLaughlin's testified that they had a small party at their home but some members were actually on their way home from the tavern when they saw the barn on fire (Daniel Sullivan lied & said he was home but according to our family tradition he was also on his way back home from the tavern), Daniel Sullivan tried to help but being disabled & realizing it was going to spread, he went home (SW of the O'Leary's) and grabbed his family and went away from the fire and thus my family line continued.
So yes the idea of the cow "kicking" the lantern directly over may not be exact, but the cow knocking into a wall which held a lantern on a nail did in fact happen just a couple weeks prior. From everyone who was there at the time they drew two possibilities, 1. The cow knocked a hanging lamp over again and started the fire OR 2. Her son James O'Leary, Louis Cohn and other boys, perhaps even a Sullivan, were gambling w/ dice in the barn and Louis Cohn knocked over the lamp when throwing his dice. When they had a formal inquest after the fire, the neighbors blamed it on the cow as plausible, the parents didn’t try to correct that since they didn't want to the kids to be blamed (and being preoccupied with their own drinking party where not paying attention). By the way, Cohn did in fact confess that he knocked over a lantern throwing the dice in his will when he donated the property which is now the University of Chicago and James O'Leary became a notorious casino owner.
So I believe both are possible and perhaps both happened.