Myth: The Great Chicago
Fire was started by
popular story often told about how of the Great Chicago Fire started is that a cow owned
by Kate O’Leary kicked a lit lantern over and that started the flames.
It may come as a disappoint to some to learn that the cow story isn’t true—the man
who wrote the O’Leary story for the Chicago Republican, Michael Ahern, later admitted
that he had made the cow angle up in order to create a more interesting tale. But the
fire certainly did start in the vicinity of a barn owned by the O’Learys. However, the
exact cause of the fire was never determined, though Catherine O’Leary was used as a scapegoat
of sorts. O’Leary was an Irish Catholic immigrant—despised by many people at the
time—so she made an easy target. In addition to Ahern’s retraction of his cow story,
the O’Learys claimed to have been asleep by the time the fire started, so there would
have been no lantern in the barn for a cow to kick.
There has been a lot of speculation about the cause of the fire, but, as stated, little
is known for certain. One of the other popular theories that is also likely false is that
the fire was caused by a meteor shower- specifically, the theory goes that it was caused by fragments
from the broken up Beila’s Comet. (Incidentally, about a year later, on November 27, 1872,
fragments from Beila’s Comet resulted in a meteor shower that had an astounding 3,000
meteors per hour visible!) Three other large fires started around Lake Michigan on the
same day, which some people argue is too much of a coincidence not to have a common cause.
However, meteorites that actually make it to the ground are usually cool when they hit
and thus generally don’t start fires. Further, given the prevalence of flames at
night and the extremely dry and windy conditions at the time, it’s thought by most historians
that the other fires were merely coincidence and not from a common source like a meteor
shower. Despite not knowing the exact cause of the
Chicago fire, it is easy to see just how the fire spread once it started. Chicago in 1871
was not made up of skyscrapers-and-concrete. Around two-thirds of the buildings in Chicago
were made of wood at the time. Most of the buildings had tar or shingle roofs, which
would only serve to feed the flames. The roads and sidewalks were also made from wood products.
The conditions were dry, with a drought plaguing the city not long before the fire started—that
summer, they received only about a quarter of their average rainfall. And let’s not
forget Chicago’s nickname: it isn’t called “the Windy City” for nothing. At the time,
it’s believed that a strong south-westerly wind blew hot embers from the fire toward
the heart of the city, landing on the highly flammable roofs and starting up additional
fires. Another big issue was that the people did
not act quickly enough. The fire department was alerted to the growing problem around
forty minutes after the fire started, after an alarm was sounded in a pharmacy.
The fire finally went out when the winds died down and a light drizzle helped the fire fighters
with their efforts. Only three large buildings in the affected area survived enough to be
repaired: the Chicago Water Tower, St. Michael’s Church, and the Chicago Avenue Pumping Station.
The latter two only had their exterior walls to rebuild from, as their insides were eaten
away by the fire. In the aftermath, Chicago received donations
of money, food, clothing, and other supplies from cities across the United States to help
them rebuild. Surprisingly, much of Chicago’s infrastructure—such as mass transportation—remained
intact. The fire had destroyed nearly 73 miles of road, but it hadn’t touched the harbors.
Railroad tracks were also largely undamaged, which allowed so many of the donated goods
to pour in. After the fire, legislation was passed requiring
buildings to be constructed from brick, stone, and other mostly fireproof materials. It wasn’t
fully effective because the poorer residents couldn’t afford the materials or the skilled
labourers required to rebuild. In addition, some businesses simply ignored the laws to
save money. Ironically, it was Chicago’s fiery destruction
which led to it becoming one of the United States’ most important economic cities,
as well as one of the most populous. The rebuilding effort required an army of people to be hired
as labourers, which boosted both the economy and population of the city. At the time of
the fire in 1871, Chicago boasted about 300,000 residents. By 1890, Chicago was home to over
a million people, making it second in population only to New York City.
Bonus Facts: • Funny enough, the winds changed in time
to save the O’Learys’ house. Their barn went up in flames, but their house wasn’t
touched by the fire. • A new Chicago Fire Academy was built in
1956 on the site of the O’Learys’ burnt-down barn. It is still in operation today.
• In contrast to the Chicago fire actually helping Chicago become one of the major cities
in the United States, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that resulted in about 80% of the
city destroyed ended up ending San Francisco’s reign as the dominate city in California,
with a large percentage of the residents moving to Los Angeles.
• A large amount of timber used to rebuild Chicago came from Singapore, Michigan, and
led to extreme deforestation. Without the trees to protect the town from the elements,
sand blew in from Lake Michigan’s shoreline and eroded the town in just four years. It
is still one of Michigan’s ghost towns and lies beneath the sand dunes on the shore of