Chicago Fire 1871

Drawing of the Chicago Fire

On October 8th, a fire broke out in the west side of Chicago. The fire lasted two days, killing 300 people, and destroying most of Chicago. Property damages were estimated at 200 million dollars.


The fire began at 9:00 PM on October 8th by all accounts in a small barn of the O’Leary family . What caused the fire to this day is not known, the popular story is that O’Leary cow knocked over a lantern. Chicago had been suffered a drought and over 70% of the buildings as well as the sidewalks in the city had been buildt from wood, and the roof of the buildings were highly flammable. The fire spread rapidly and by the time Chicago’s understaffed fire department could respond, it had enveloped many nearby buildings. It was initially hoped that part of the Chicago River would act as a barrier to the further spread of the fire, but the fire was so hot and the wind was strong that it quickly jumped the river and spread to the center of the city. The fire was so hot that it created its’ own tornado like winds that helped spread the fire with frightening speed. Firefighters continued to fight the fire until the water works caught fire and burned down. When the waterworks burned down the firefighters lost their ability to fight the fire and all they could do was watch the fire burn, until it reached the edges of the city and it began to rain. By that time there was little left to burn.

Once the fires petered out and it was safe to survey the damage it became clear how devastating the fire had been. An area 4 miles long and 3/4 miles wide had been destroyed by the fire. 73 miles of road and 17,500 building were gone. 100,000 people about 1/3 of the cities total were homeless. After the fire 120 bodies were found all though the death toll might have been as high as 300. The total value of the property loss was $222 million or over $4 billion in today dollars. Help for Chicago streamed in from all over the world and Chicago rebuilt.