Hometown Tales Podcast

Monday, December 29, 2008

Chicago, IL - The Great Chicago Fire

In 1871, Chicago was growing city surrounded by a veritable shanty-town of working-class neighborhoods: tenements, cottages, wooden huts. Basically it was a tinderbox.

In September of 1871, the Chicago Tribune featured many editorials and stories on the inadequate construction of the brick and stone downtown buildings. The Trib said, if the city didn’t fall down, it was liable to burn! Plus, there had been very little rain that summer, leaving “…everything in so flammable a condition that a spark might set a fire that would sweep from end to end of the city”.

That spark, as legend has it, was Cathy O’Leary and her cow. O’Leary ran a milk business from the barn behind her home at 137 De Koven Street in Chicago’s West Division: west of the south branch of the Chicago River.

As the story goes, on October 8, 1871, O’Leary forgot her lantern in the barn, her cow kicked it over and the fire began. By 10:30, the fire was out of control. Which is bad, What’s worse was the strong wind that blew the firs towards downtown. Soon, the air was filled with cinders that was described a “red rain”.

In just over an hour, the west side of the city was in ashes and the fire showed no signs of slowing down. It even jumped the Chicago River: a river so polluted at the time that it, to, caught fire. Downtown, the fire igniting over 500 buildings. People fled, prisoners were simply sent free, buildings collapsed. Saloon keepers, hoping to save their taverns, had foolishly rolled barrels of whiskey out into the streets. So now everyone is getting drunk. As some people tried to protect their homes, many others began an odyssey of looting and violence.

On the morning of October 10, it began to rain. The fire gradually died. Over 300 people were dead and another 100,000 were homeless. The fire had cut a swath through the city that was four miles long and about two-thirds of a mile wide.

The city began anew, becoming one of the grand metropolis we know today. The night of October 8, 1871 is remembered in song, on film and in professional sports because Chicago was hip enough to name the local MLS team “Chicago Fire”.

Sources: Bales, Richard F. “Did the Cow Do It? A New Look at the Cause of the Great Chicago Fire“, 2004.

“The Great Chicago Fire“, America’s Library, 2004.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress