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Great Chicago Fire

The Great Chicago Fire took place October 8 - October 10, 1871, in Chicago, Illinois.



Despite a well known legend that the Great Chicago Fire was started by a cow kicking over a lantern in the barn owned by Mrs. O'Leary on DeKoven Street , historians now believe it was begun by Daniel "Pegleg" Sullivan, who first reported the fire. Prior to his death, Sullivan confessed to starting the fire.

The legend, however, was immortalized in the lyrics of a song about the great fire, which begins:

"One dark night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O'Leary lit a lantern in the shed,
And when the cow kicked it over, it winked its eye and said,
There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight."

The prevailing opinion today is that the Great Chicago Fire did start in Kate O'Leary's barn around 9:00 p.m. on October 8, 1871, but that she was not the cause of it. Mrs. O'Leary was the perfect scapegoat, she was a woman, an immigrant and Catholic, all making for a combination which did not fare well in the political climate of Chicago at that time. In 1997 the Chicago City Council formally investigated the fire and absolved Mrs. O'Leary of any guilt. It was surmised that Daniel Sullivan had committed the crime when trying to steal milk from her barn for a batch of "whisky punch".


The summer had been hot and dry; only an inch of rain had fallen since July 4th of that year and a major fire a day earlier had left the water reserves dangerously low. When the fire was reported, neighbors hurried to protect the O'Leary's house from the blaze. High winds from the southwest caused the fire to ignite neighboring houses and move towards the center of Chicago. Between superheated winds and throwing out flaming brands, the fire crossed the Chicago River by midnight. The fire spread so quickly because of plank sidewalks, high winds and the Chicago River itself starting on fire from the massive amounts of pollution in the greasy river.


When the fire was extinguished two days later, the smoldering remains were too hot for a survey of the damage to be completed for a couple of days. Eventually, it was determined that the fire destroyed a patch four miles (6 km) long and averaging 3/4 mile (1 km) wide, more than 2,000 acres (8 km&sup2). This area included more than 73 miles (120 km) of roads, 120 miles (190 km) of sidewalk, 2,000 lampposts, 17,000 buildings, and $200 million in property, about a third of the city's valuation. After the fire, 125 bodies were recovered. Final estimates of fatalities were in the 200-300 person range, low for such a large fire, for many had been able to escape ahead of the flames. 100,000 out of 300,000 inhabitants were left homeless.

The fire was said to be so fierce by local papers that it surpassed the damage done by Napoleon's siege of Moscow in 1812.

Land speculators, such as Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, quickly set about rebuilding the city; and only twenty years later, Chicago hosted the World Columbian Exposition.

Related events

Two other major fires also occurred along the shores of Lake Michigan at the same time as the Chicago conflagration. 400 miles (600 km) to the north, the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin along with a dozen other villages went up in flames, killing 1,200 to 2,500 people and charring approximately 1.5 million acres (6,000 km&sup2). The Peshtigo Fire is the deadliest in American history. Across the lake to the east, the town of Holland, Michigan and other nearby areas burned to the ground.

There have been persistent theories that these fires were all started by a comet. The latest comet theory was propounded by physicist Robert Wood who attributes the blazes to a fragment from Biela's Comet.


  • "People & Events: The Great Fire of 1871". The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Website . Retrieved Sep. 3, 2004.
  • "History of the Great Fires in Chicago and the West". - Rev. Edgar J. Goodspeed, D.D.

External links

  • Did a Comet Trigger The Great Chicago Fire? (Discovery Channel)
  • The Cause of the Great Chicago Fire

Last updated: 02-07-2005 17:14:02
Last updated: 04-30-2005 11:09:39