The Most Catastrophic Event In Chicago History

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The most catastrophic event in Chicago history happened on the night of October 8, 1871, when a fire broke out in the city’s northwest side. A series of human and natural events caused it to spread out of control and two days later the city was in ruins. The fire killed an estimated 300 people, left 100,000 people homeless, and roughly one-third of the city lay in ruins. Every cloud has a silver lining, and the wiped out city rose from the ashes which was more stronger, inspiring, safer, and breathtaking.

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Chicago was the perfect location near the center of the country, the place where the waterways and the rails would all meet. It was a perfect place for anyone or anything to get anywhere. It was like the point of the funnel that everything has to go through. The city had to build quickly so they built with wood. Wood was quick, easy, and cheap, so the city of Chicago consisted of 90% wood buildings. The concentration of closely-built wooden structures including hundreds of miles of wooden streets, sidewalks, and picket fences, made Chicago a huge tinderbox. Chicago was growing so fast in 1871, that nobody figured out how to plan it in a cohesive way which meant there weren’t actually that much rules. There were homes next to lumber yards, next to mills, and next to businesses. For the most part, homes and businesses were all jumbled together. It was the fastest growing city at the time, the swamps by Lake Michigan had made visionaries into millionaires, but in the summer of 1871, fortunes changed, as quickly as the weather. It was extremely dry that summer and fall, and Chicago only had 5 inches of rain between July and September which is about half the normal. It was causing a severe drought that left much of the region open to numerous grass and forest fires. Rainfall had only been one quarter the normal amount: only one inch had fallen since July, making the wooden city of Chicago ripe for disaster.

The Myth of Ms. O’ Leary’s Cow

According to a legend, on the evening of October 8th, Mrs. Catherin’ O Leary was milking her cow at her barn at 137 West Koban Street on the city’s west side. Around that time, a small fire ignites in the barn and puts the whole city into flames.

One dark night, – when people were in bed,

Old Mrs. Leary lit a lantern in her shed;

The cow kicked it over, winked its eye, and said,

There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.

What caused that fire is still being debated nearly 150 years later, but one thing is for sure, it started in the cow barn, behind, ‘O Leary’s barn. Just before 9:00 PM ‘O Leary’s next door neighbor ran to the neighborhood fire alarm to send an alert to the watchtower at the city courthouse. The night operator sent a telegraph to the firefighters but failed to notify the firehouse closest to the fire. By the time firefighters reached the ‘O Leary’s barn about 20 minutes after the first alarm the fire had spread throughout the block.

The sky was filled with flames, the wind pushed the fire north and east all the way to the banks of the river. Nobody expected the fire to be able to cross the Chicago River which was not a hugely wide river, but it had always been an effective barrier for fire protection, but by 11:30 the river was in flames. The Chicago River itself even caught fire from the grease and the pollutants on the water. So this really was quite a fire, when the river itself was burning. After jumping the Chicago River, the firestorm tore through the cities business district. The heat helped the fire generate it’s own wind. In the areas of extreme heat, the air was rising away from the fire, air rushed in with great force and the spin looked like burning tornadoes. The fire reached the courthouse. The tower collapsed, silencing the bell that for hours had been ringing out warning. The fire progressed to the lake and west along the river, consuming bridges, shipping vessels, warehouses full of goods, stacks of lumber and coal along the river, and frame structure after frame structure. By Monday morning, little in the city’s north side was left to burn. Next, the fire moved south, destroying some of the city’s most valuable real estate, including the post office, the Chicago Tribune building, and numerous grand hotels and churches. It then moved east, to the palatial residences along the lake. As the fire approached the business section, goods were removed from warehouses and stores and piled along the lakeshore. By Monday night, even these stacks of goods had ignited. On Tuesday morning, a merciful rain extinguished the flames. 

29 April 2022

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