Chicago Fire – Illinois – October 8, 1871

A bigger fire, compared with all the previous ones, broke out in the center of the city of Chicago. Inability of firemen to get to the fire quickly gave the flames a quick start from which, aided by a brisk wind, they were able to push the fire beyond the control of the fire department.

This fire began in the barn of a farmer near the center of the city in the evening of October 8, 1871. There was considerable delay in responding to the fire. The alarm was not sounded for more than an hour and then the firemen were sent at first to the wrong place. These factors allowed the fire to make a quick start. Additionally, weekends seem to be favorite times for tragedies of this kind. It was on a weekend, early Sunday morning, that the great fire of London of 1666 broke out and it was also on a weekend that the tragic Coconut Grove Club fire in Boston occurred, killing five hundred of the people who had packed into that club for the evening of November 28, 1942. There was an additional troubling factor affecting the Chicago fire: weeks of extremely dry weather had caused a rash of fires. Daily the city’s fire bell kept ringing every three or four hours. Firemen were completely exhausted by the time the big fire broke out on October 8.

Chicago, the windy city, unfortunately lived up to its reputation on this occasion. Soon after the start of the fire a strong wind began to blow from the southwest. This was the trigger that accelerated the conflagration, pushing it beyond control within a couple of hours. The wind rose to 60 mph, flaming bits of debris were blown from one building to another, and soon large numbers of people were running toward Lake Michigan’s beaches for safety. The reality that firemen had to face was that Chicago was a city almost entirely constructed with wood and all of this wood had become as dry as tinder in three months of drought since early July. Less than three inches of rain had fallen in those months. Wood was the universal raw material for homes and streets at that time and writers often referred to Chicago as being all wood. The arrival of blacktop was still a long way ahead in time. Walkways, paths, and even streets, were made of wood planks. There were hundreds of miles of wood in Chicago and every home and almost every building was a wooden structure.

The city in 1871 had become the national center for the meat packing industry and so the entire ground area in the newly opened stockyards were paved with wooden blocks to prevent damage to the feet of cattle, sheep, and hogs. The ships in the Chicago River were made of wood and so were the bridges that spanned it. There were wooden fences and wooden barns and outbuildings, wooden stables behind the wealthier homes and even among the large buildings of the city most of them were built of wood. The poorer residential homes stood next to lumber and coal yards, paint sheds, furniture factories, and other buildings of an industrial kind that were filled with flammable goods, so they constituted a fire trap in the given situation. That situation included widespread neglect of such fire and safety regulations that were in place. The considerations with which we are familiar today were absent in these early days of burgeoning western cities. Nowadays, the cost of a fire in a major city is so great that strict controls and high penalties for neglect are installed in all vulnerable sites.

By the time the fire eased, which would be eighteen hours later, there was a huge population of homeless people. Late on Monday evening, that is almost a day and a half after its inception, the fire burned itself out. Flames had swept over more than 2,000 acres of land and destroyed an estimated $200 million worth of property. The worst feature of all was that the areas that had been destroyed were the ones that the city could least afford to lose. The center of the city’s commercial, cultural, and civic life was destroyed. As so often happened in situations of this kind, it was hard to control looters. The authorities did what they could and the military units that were drawn in to control the situation were given orders to shoot at sight anybody who was looting. However, that did not seem to inhibit the amount of looting. There was a national and international outpouring of charitable contributions and a remarkable amount of work was accomplished in a short period of time for the many who were homeless. Reconstructing the city was a big task. Eighteen thousand buildings had been destroyed, three hundred had died, and there were a hundred thousand people without homes.

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