The Great Chicago Fire: Origin, controversy and historical significance

Multiple factors contributed to the explosive fire growth that left one-third of Chicago resident homeless


On the evening of Oct. 8, 1871, the O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern, setting the barn on fire. Combined with a strong southwest wind, a summer of little or no rain, and a city constructed of wood, the action ultimately set off a chain of events that resulted in the Great Chicago Fire.

Or so the story goes. The O’Learys and their cow have since been exonerated.

While the cause of the Great Chicago Fire remains unknown to this day, the devastation from the incident is clear: 17,450 homes destroyed, 300 dead, and one-third of Chicago’s 300,000 inhabitants homeless.

A destroyed building is shown following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The fire was one of the largest disasters of the 19th century, burning from Oct. 8 - Oct. 10, 1871.
A destroyed building is shown following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The fire was one of the largest disasters of the 19th century, burning from Oct. 8 - Oct. 10, 1871. (Photo/Associated Press)

Significant municipal growth

Before the Great Fire, Chicago was the fastest-growing city in the Midwest. The growth was fueled, in part, by Chicago serving as a huge hub for the railroads. A group of nine railroads created the Union Stock Yards in 1865. In turn, the stockyards created the meat-packing industry

The rapid growth of the city from 1840 to 1870 increased the city’s population from 4,500 to 300,000. To house all the new residents, much of the city’s housing stock was not only constructed of wood but also shoddily built. In fact, nearly everything was built of wood that had been harvested from the great white pine forests in Wisconsin and Michigan. Before the fire, even sidewalks and streets were paved with wood planks. 

In 1845, the city created fire limits to curb the spread of fires. Fire limits work like a hybrid build and zoning code designed to prevent the rapid spread of fire from building to building.

By 1861, the administration of the fire limits had moved from the city council to the Board of Public Works. Both groups received requests for exemptions and generally approved them. Requests for more firefighters, more fire hydrants, and creating a fire inspection unit were rejected by elected officials who were afraid that raising taxes would inhibit growth. 

By 1871, downtown business district was the only area of the city protected by fire limits. These fire limits required new buildings to be built of brick but did not require the removal of the existing wood construction.

Chicago Fire Department growth

Chicago established a paid fire department in 1858. By 1866, the fire department consisted of 120 paid members, 125 volunteers, 11 steamers, two hand-powered engines, one hook and ladder truck and 13 hose carts. Water towers were added in 1870.

At the time of the conflagration, the fire department consisted of 216 firefighters operating 17 engines. Paid firefighters generally worked a continuous duty roster, going home only for meals and a day off every 10 days.  

Explosive, deadly fire growth

In 1871, the hot, dry summer had the fire department responding to an average of two fires per day. And on Oct. 7, the fire department fought a large fire for 18 hours. Crews were exhausted and three engines were out of service from the call.

The first alarm was transmitted at 9:30 p.m. First-alarm companies were immediately overwhelmed, causing a general alarm to be sounded.

It was too late.

(Photo/Library of Congress)
(Photo/Library of Congress)
(Photo/Library of Congress)
(Photo/Library of Congress)

The drought conditions, coupled with high winds, pushed the fire north and east. Two hours later, it was reported that the fire had jumped the Chicago River. The fire had already destroyed approximately 32 blocks and the bridges linking the north and south sides of the city. Flying fire brands ignited the city’s waterworks building, and within a few minutes, the building was in flames, destroyed, effectively shutting down the water mains. 

The Great Chicago Fire was ultimately nine separate fires ignited by flying brands. By morning, the nine fires converged into a conflagration.

The fire was eventually contained by vacant lots that served as natural fire breaks, demolition of buildings in the path of the fire, and rain.

The fire consumed an area of the city about four miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide and caused over $200 million in damage. At the time of the fire, Chicago was six miles long and about two miles wide. 

Panorama of damage to the City of Chicago. 
Panorama of damage to the City of Chicago.  (Photo/George N. Barnard via Wikipedia)

After the Great Chicago Fire

Chicago immediately began to take steps to protect the survivors and to begin the rebuilding process. The nation also responded to the reconstruction of Chicago. Although some smaller insurers were unable to pay claims, the large insurers in New York and Europe were able to pay their claims. Moreover, many of the country’s cities donated money and supplies.

Despite the Great Chicago Fire providing the impetus for pushing the fire limits to co-terminate with the city boundaries, the extension of the fire limits to the city boundaries did not occur until after the city’s next massive blaze.

On July 14, 1874, the Chicago Fire of 1874, also known as the Second Great Chicago Fire, destroyed 47 acres and 812 homes. This fire consumed an area south of the 1871 fire. The weather conditions were identical – warm, dry weather with a wind out of the southwest, just as it was in 1871.

The cottage of Catherine and Patrick O'Leary, 137 (now 558) W. DeKoven St., the current location of the Chicago Fire Department's academy. 
The cottage of Catherine and Patrick O'Leary, 137 (now 558) W. DeKoven St., the current location of the Chicago Fire Department's academy.  (Photo/A. H. Abbott via Wikipedia)

The extension of the fire limits came about because the insurance industry reacted aggressively in the wake of the fire. The nascent National Board of Fire Underwriters (NBFU) demanded that Chicago reorganize the fire department, increase the size of the water mains, and ban all wood construction within the city limits. Moreover, the NBFU urged its member insurance companies to refuse to do business in Chicago until the demands were met. The inability to insure properties moved the city council to respond despite efforts to prevent the extension of the fire limits to the city line. 

Historical significance of the Great Chicago Fire

The Great Chicago Fire retains its historical significance 150 years after the event. In an ironic twist, in the mid-1950s the Chicago Fire Department built its fire academy on the site of the O’Leary barn. Nevertheless, the lessons of the Great Chicago Fire continue to be re-learned by each succeeding generation.

Today, we see cities eliminating or reducing the size of their fire limits because “they our outdated.” So now we have huge lightweight wood-frame apartment buildings constructed in densely populated areas. And in the wildland-urban interface, few municipalities make efforts to mitigate the potential destruction of neighborhoods and communities through fire prevention, building and zoning codes. 

If only we could learn from the past.


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