Great Chicago Fire

A devastating fire began a deadly three-day sweep through the heart of downtown Chicago, taking three hundred lives and the homes of ninety thousand residents, causing more than $200 million in damage, and destroying more than eighteen thousand buildings and other structures. Remembered especially in the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, the disaster led to building reforms and Chicago’s growth as a major urban center.

Summary of Event

In 1871, Chicago was a fast-growing boomtown, thanks to its advantageous geographic position between the eastern and western United States. Nicknamed the Queen of the West, the city was home to ten railroad lines, and its ports provided access to the Great Lakes. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, more than half of its residents were immigrants, and Chicago’s factories, stockyards, lumberyards, and grain silos provided work for thousands of people seeking a better life. Chicago Fire (1871)
O’Leary, Catherine
[kw]Great Chicago Fire (Oct. 8-10, 1871)
[kw]Chicago Fire, Great (Oct. 8-10, 1871)
[kw]Fire, Great Chicago (Oct. 8-10, 1871)
Chicago Fire (1871)
O’Leary, Catherine
[g]United States;Oct. 8-10, 1871: Great Chicago Fire[4580]
[c]Disasters;Oct. 8-10, 1871: Great Chicago Fire[4580]
[c]Architecture;Oct. 8-10, 1871: Great Chicago Fire[4580]
Mason, Roswell B.
Williams, Robert A.
O’Leary, Catherine

Because most of Chicago was built on swampland, the roads and sidewalks were frequently choked with mud. To combat the quagmire, the city began paving the roads with wooden planks and constructing raised wooden sidewalks. By the late nineteenth century, Chicago had 561 miles of wooden sidewalks and fifty-seven miles of wood-paved streets. In addition, nearly two-thirds of Chicago’s buildings were made of wood, and many of the stone structures had wooden roofs coated with tar to make them rainproof. There were few building codes, and unscrupulous builders took advantage of the population boom to construct and sell substandard homes and businesses. Despite urging by the chief fire marshal, Robert A. Williams Williams, Robert A. , city officials refused to pass and enforce stricter building codes because doing so would have meant raising taxes.

Chicago’s summer of 1871 was dry; only one and one-half inches of rain had fallen by early July. By fall, the city’s firefighters were battling an average of twenty fires per week, including a fire on October 7 that destroyed four city blocks. This massive blaze also damaged two fire engines, a hook truck, and a ladder wagon, and left the 185 men of the Chicago fire department exhausted and understaffed.

The blaze that would become known as the Great Chicago Fire began in the west division of the city at about 9:00 p.m., on October 8, 1871, a Sunday. Even though Chicago had a new telegraph-based fire alarm system, miscommunication delayed the arrival of firefighters and equipment. Seven fire companies arrived within the first hour, but they could not contain the blaze. Fanned by southwesterly winds, the fire grew and spread through the neighborhood, consuming cottages and barns filled with hay and grain saved up for the coming winter. With the help of police and civilians, the firefighters were able to prevent the fire from moving west but could not stop the branch that spread to the northeast, which included lumber and coal yards. Within hours, the wood mills and furniture factories were on fire.

Hopes of containing the fire in the western division of Chicago fell when strong winds carried embers and flaming chunks of wood across the south branch of the Chicago River. One of the first casualties in the south division was the gasworks, where a massive fuel tank exploded, causing the city’s gas lights to go out.

Mayor Roswell B. Mason Mason, Roswell B. had been summoned to his office at the Cook County Courthouse and was monitoring the fire’s progress; he was also trying to get help from the surrounding cities. His telegrams read: “Chicago Is In Flames. Send Your Whole Department to Help Us.” Fire departments from Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and even as far as Pennsylvania responded with men and equipment.

Attempts to fight the fire with explosives Explosives;and Chicago Fire[Chicago fire] failed, and desperate residents took to the rooftops, extinguishing flying embers and pieces of debris as they landed and dampening down the tar and wood roofs as best they could. The fire reached the courthouse shortly before 2:00 a.m., and Mayor Mason Mason, Roswell B. ordered an evacuation. Within twenty minutes the courthouse tower collapsed, sending the 7,200-pound bell that sounded the fire alarms crashing into the basement.

The fire continued to move eastward through the business district and was by now so hot that even the fireproof buildings of stone and marble were destroyed. Spectators quickly became refugees, and survivors fled to the north division or eastward toward the shores of Lake Michigan. Some were able to hire wagons, but most fled with what they could carry, and the streets were littered with expensive possessions that had been abandoned during the escape.

The same blaze that destroyed the courthouse sent a spark across the northern branch of the Chicago River. A railroad car filled with kerosene burst into flames, and in no time the fire raged in the northern division, advancing toward the waterworks, a stone structure with a wooden roof. At 3:00 a.m., the roof collapsed in flames and the massive pumps that provided the water to the hydrants ground to a halt. Once the station was destroyed, it was nearly impossible for firefighters to continue to battle the blaze anywhere other than areas close to the Chicago River.

People fleeing across the Chicago River as central Chicago burns.

With nothing left to stop it, the fire continued to blaze after dawn and into the day. People who had lost their homes gathered in the open prairie west and northwest of the city, as well as on the banks of Lake Michigan, just north of the Chicago River. The fire continued to burn until it reached the northern city limits. Fortunately, a light rain began to fall at about 11:00 p.m., and a few hours later, the sky opened with a downpour. Small fires continued to burn for the next several days, but for the most part, the Great Fire was out.

The so-called Burnt District covered more than two thousand acres, including twenty-eight miles of streets. Eighteen thousand buildings were destroyed. Losses were estimated at more than $200 million dollars, one-third of the city’s property value. Only half of the property owners carried insurance, but most of the locally owned insurance companies perished in the aftermath of the fire, making insurance policies worthless.


As the Great Chicago Fire still blazed, city officials began organizing relief efforts for those who had lost their homes. Mayor Mason declared martial law and placed a U.S. Civil War veteran, Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan Sheridan, Philip H.
[p]Sheridan, Philip H.;and Chicago Fire[Chicago fire] , in charge of restoring and maintaining order. Temporary city offices were set up in the western division at the First Congregational Church, and the Chicago Relief and Aid Society was established to distribute money and goods flowing in from across the United States and around the world. Despite his efforts during the fire and in the days following, Mason Mason, Roswell B. lost the mayoral election the following month to Joseph Medill, who ran on the Fireproof Party platform.

The cause of the blaze was never established, but, like the fire, rumors spread quickly. Even before the flames were completely extinguished, newspaper accounts had fixed the blame on an Irish immigrant family named O’Leary. Patrick O’Leary was a laborer, and his wife Catherine sold the milk of a handful of cows kept in their barn behind their cottage. Although it was true that the blaze began in the vicinity of the O’Leary barn, no proof exists to show that, as the legend says, one of the cows kicked over a lantern, igniting the blaze.

Reporters, politicians, and other officials seized the opportunity to make scapegoats of the O’Learys rather than place the blame on the city’s substandard housing codes or the consequences of trying to work an overworked and understaffed fire department. Catherine O’Leary’s name was not cleared until 1997, when the Chicago City Council passed a resolution absolving her from responsibility in the Great Chicago Fire.

Further Reading

  • Bales, Richard F. The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002. A modern-day forensic-style analysis of the fire’s origin and spread, as well as the finger-pointing that followed.
  • Cromie, Robert. The Great Chicago Fire. Nashville, Tenn.: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994. A detailed account of the events during the fire, including photographs and illustrations from the actual time period.
  • Lowe, David, ed. The Great Chicago Fire: In Eyewitness Accounts and Seventy Contemporary Photographs and Illustrations. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1979. A collection of firsthand accounts of the Great Fire.
  • Miller, Ross. The Great Chicago Fire. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000. A historical perspective on how the Great Fire affected the city of Chicago throughout the next century.
  • Sawislak, Karen. Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. A look at the aftermath of the fire, the years immediately following it, and the rebuilding of Chicago.

Ward Launches a Mail-Order Business

World’s First Skyscraper Is Built

Johnstown Flood

Galveston Hurricane

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Daniel Hudson Burnham; Marshall Field; Louis Sullivan; Montgomery Ward. Chicago Fire (1871)
O’Leary, Catherine