The Great Chicago Fire On Sunday, October 8, 1871, a devastating fire took place that changed the practices of fire prevention in the U.S. forever. The Great Chicago Fire engulfed the city of Chicago, Illinois for two days, destroying 3.3 square miles of the city, claiming nearly 300 lives, and leaving 100,000 people homeless. The historic fire was one of the country’s largest disasters of the 19th century.
The tragically historic fire began at roughly 9 p.m. in a barn that belonged to Chicago residents Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. Although some theories exist, no actual cause for the fire has ever been determined.
By the time the Chicago fire department reached the property, the flames were quickly spreading from the O’Leary’s barn to neighboring buildings. Unfortunately, some misinformation on the part of a watchman first sent the department to the wrong location, and by the time they arrived, the fire had progressed to a level that simply could not be combated or controlled, even by the fleet of 185 firefighters and 17 horse-drawn fire carts on the scene. Just a few hours after the blaze ignited, the wind began to carry flaming debris across the south branch of the Chicago River and new fires began to consume buildings on the other side. Soon, much of Chicago – including the city’s business district - was engulfed.
In addition to the strong winds that carried burning embers through the air to other buildings, the fire’s advancement was also aided by an exceptionally long drought. The fact that most of the construction in the city was wood compounded the problem, as these structures easily caught fire when flames from a nearby building crept closer or when flaming debris was carried through the air. Additionally, most wooden buildings were topped with flammable tar and shingle roofs, only adding to the ease with which the blaze spread.
The fire raged on until late in the night on October 9th when the flames had begun to burn themselves out and it began to rain. After the remains cooled, the city was able to determine that more than 2,000 acres were destroyed, as well as more than 73 miles of roads, 120 miles of sidewalks, and 17,500 buildings. As many as 300 people perished during the fire.
Following the Great Chicago Fire, many improvements were made to building techniques and city planning, and the standards for fire prevention were rewritten to help prevent such a fire from occurring again. Chicago soon developed one of America’s leading firefighting forces, and in 1956, the remains of the O’Leary property were torn down for the construction of the Chicago Fire Academy, a training facility for Chicago firefighters.
Today, the city of Chicago is bustling and thriving, and you’d never know that such a terrible fire had ravaged the city less than 150 years before, but for as tragic of a disaster as the fire was, it helped the city prepare for a safer firefighting future.