SNIPPETS OF HISTORY: ‘ Great Fire of Chicago Originated in a Barn and Ended Up Destroying 17,450 Buildings ‘

#AceHistory2ResearchNews – UNITED STATES (Chicago) October 08 – On this day in 1871, flames spark in the Chicago barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary,

' Chicago Fire 17,000 plus Homeless '

‘ Chicago Fire 17,000 plus Homeless ‘

Igniting a two-day blaze that kills between 200 and 300 people, destroys 17,450 buildings, leaves 100,000 homeless and causes an estimated $200 million (in 1871 dollars; $3 billion in 2007 dollars) in damages.

' Great Chicago Fire Map with Starting Point '

‘ Great Chicago Fire Map with Starting Point ‘

The fire started at about 9:00 P.M, October 8, in or around a small barn that bordered the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street.[ The traditional account of the origin of the fire is that it was started by a cow kicking over a lantern in the barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary.

In 1893, Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter who wrote the O’Leary account, admitted he had made it up as colourful copy. 

The barn was the first building to be consumed by the fire, but the official report could not determine the exact cause.

There has, however, been some speculation that would suggest the fire was caused by a person, instead of a cow. Some testimonies stated that a group of men were gambling inside the barn so they would not be seen by others.

The lamp that they were using was accidentally knocked over, which is what started the fire. Little evidence has been presented to prove whether or not this is true.

There has been speculation as to whether the cause of the fire was related to other fires that began the same day.

See Questions about the fire.

The fire’s spread was aided by the city’s use of wood as the predominant building material, a drought prior to the fire, and strong winds from the south-west that carried flying embers toward the heart of the city.

More than ⅔ of the structures in Chicago at the time of the fire were made entirely of wood. Most houses and buildings were topped with highly flammable tar or shingle roofs. All the city’s side-walks and many roads were also made of wood. 

Compounding this problem, Chicago had only received an inch of rain from July 4 to October 9 causing severe drought conditions. 

A picture of American firefighters in the 1770s

A picture of American firefighters in the 1770s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1871, the Chicago Fire Department had a force of 185 fire-fighters with just  17 horse-drawn steam engines to protect the entire city. The initial response by the fire department was quick but due to an error by the watchman, Matthias Schaffer, the fire fighters were sent to the wrong location allowing the fire to grow unchecked 

An alarm sent from the area near the fire also failed to register at the courthouse where the fire watchmen were located.

Additionally, the fire-fighters were tired from having fought numerous small fires and one large fire in the week before. 

These factors combined to turn a small barn fire into a large scale conflagration.

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