The Great Chicago Fire – 1871

Chicago was born in a hurry to grow up, from a hamlet of 150 people in 1831 to a haphazard metropolis of 340,000 in 1871. Trains from the east decanted scores of immigrants while trains from the west decanted cattle and buffalo hides to market; and the end of the Civil War brought thousands displaced from the south. Chicago needed to build. Wood was quickest and cheapest so the city was built of wood, from its roofs and walls to its sidewalks, and even planked streets. It was a tinderbox and, at the end of an exceptionally hot, dry summer, the ‘Queen of the West’ burned.

A southwest wind fanned the flames from Mrs O’Leary’s downtown milking barn up through the North Side along Lake Michigan. The fire surged in intensity as it leapt the Chicago River, filled with debris and oil from waterside factories, and swept through the blue-collar Irish district of Conley’s Patch. Exhausted by dealing with a big local fire the previous day, the city’s pitifully small fire service of 185 men could do nothing. Only the thin veil of rain on the third day stemmed the raging havoc, by which time 17,500 buildings lay in ashes along 70 miles of streets. Around 100,000 Chicagoans were homeless, and as many as 300 were dead.

But Chicago found common cause in its response to the calamity. The first wagonload of lumber for rebuilding arrived as the last flames were snuffed. Within a week some 6,000 new structures provided shelter for the bereft. Rich and poor worked side by side to put their city back on its feet. Improvement and expansion marched with renewal – and just 22 years later Chicago had re-invented itself to host 21 million visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair. Its citizens turned disaster into a triumph of American ‘can do’.

When was the Great Chicago Fire:  October 8-10 1871

Where was the Great Chicago Fire: Chicago, Illinois, USA

What was the Great Chicago Fire toll: Chicago’s characteristically energetic civic pride gave thanks for the relatively low death toll (estimated at 300) by rushing through tough revised building and fire codes that became a model for many other emergent US cities. Sadly, equally tough enforcement shattered the optimism of civic unity. Those who could afford to rebuild in stone blamed the fire on the poor who could not, as if poverty itself were feckless. City officials encouraged them, to distract attention from their own disorganization, and in the smart new Chicago the gap between ‘have’ and ‘have not’ widened to its present gulf.

You should know: The great Chicago fire remains the city’s cultural landmark, its Major League Soccer (MLS) team was founded on the fire’s 126th anniversary, and is called ‘The Chicago Fire’; and the athletics team at the University of Illinois at Chicago is known as ‘The Flames’.

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