A Look Back: The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

FireRescue recalls the monumental tragedy that spurred the creation of Fire Prevention Week

Note: This article was originally printed in the October 2006 issue of FireRescue magazine.


Editor’s Note: In honor of Fire Prevention Week, Oct. 8–14, we at FireRescue would like to present our readers with a historical account of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the incident that inspired the creation of Fire Prevention Week. As we do so, we remember those who suffered and died as a result the fire’s mass destruction, as well as the city’s struggle to rise from its ashes.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is truly one of our country’s greatest tragedies. By the time the last remaining flames flickered out, the fire had claimed 300 lives and decimated four square miles—more than 2,000 acres—of heavily populated land. Nearly 100,000 people were left homeless; the city’s business district was in ruins; and more than 28 miles of streets, 120 miles of sidewalks, 18,000 buildings and 2,000 lampposts, along with countless trees, shrubs and plants, were completely wiped out.

The Great Fire
By 1871, the city of Chicago was no stranger to fire. In fact, in 1870, the city suffered through an average of two fires a day. During the week just prior to the Great Fire, 20 smaller fires had burned in various parts of the city, as if to forewarn citizens of the calamity that was about to occur.

The Great Chicago Fire began near a barn at approximately 9 p.m. on Oct. 8, 1871. It is unclear exactly how the fire started (some believe a cow knocked over an oil lamp inside the barn, setting straw ablaze), but the city’s unseasonably dry, windy weather and minimal rainfall, coupled with its wooden structures and woodworking industries, made it a prime location for an inferno.

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By the time the last remaining flames flickered out, the fire had claimed 300 lives and decimated four square miles of heavily populated land. Nearly 100,000 people were left homeless.

The Chicago courthouse was one of the few structures left standing after the fire. AP Photo

Caught by a strong southwesterly wind, the fire spread rapidly, racing toward the center of the city and dividing several times. By midnight, the flames had jumped the south branch of the Chicago River, and by 1:30 a.m. Monday morning, they began threatening the court-house tower, forcing watchmen stationed on the tower to slide down the banisters of a burning stairway to escape death.

The courthouse basement housed the city’s prisoners, who were released after officials realized that not only was the tower fated for destruction, but the entire building was destined to go up in flames. Moments after the prisoners’ release, the tower’s giant bell plummeted to the ground.
Mayor Roswell B. Mason was also working inside the courthouse two hours before fleeing as it succumbed to the flames. While there, he followed the fire’s progress, issued commands and sent telegrams to other cities pleading for additional men and equipment. He later learned his home was spared, but flames prevented him from reaching it that night; instead, he was forced to travel north with the throngs of other citizens heading for safer ground.

As the fire raged on through the night and into the next morning, the city dissolved into chaos. Onlookers who initially saw the incident merely as a source of entertainment, and sought out prime locations from which to watch the fire’s progress, soon realized the gravity of the situation. Their only way to survive was to flee the city.

People flooded the smoke-filled streets, unsure of where to go or what to bring with them. Because the streets, sidewalks and bridges were made of wood, panic-stricken crowds hastily formed on the bridges crossing the river. But safety eluded them even though they were near water, as several vessels, and grease on the river’s surface, ignited. Families became separated amid the havoc. Later, reports claimed many people had become trapped or crushed in their homes, on one of the bridges or in the Washington and LaSalle Street tunnels.

Thousands fled to the city’s north division, hoping to escape with their lives and carrying what little they could, but they were forced to continue onward as the flames chased them. To make matters worse, by 3:30 a.m., flames destroyed the roof of the pumping station, which served as the hub of the city’s firefighting efforts. By noon the following day, north division fires reached Chicago’s northern limit.

In the city’s south division, fire consumed the offices of the Chicago Tribune, whose editors had previously urged the city council to raise the level of fire protection.

Those who ran through the night escaped to the outskirts of the city, where they were left to ponder the enormity of the fire and the devastation it caused. And as with any major tragedy, stories surfaced telling of great heroism and selflessness. But there were also rumors of drunkenness, looting and robbery.

Thanks to much-needed rainfall, the fire died out Tuesday morning, but by then, the landscape of the once-bustling city had been drastically transformed into a smoldering heap of ash and smoke. What’s most unfortunate about this tragedy is that Chicago’s firemen might have had a fighting chance against the blaze, had it not been for multiple technical failures and human errors in the city’s alarm system.

The Aftermath
The Great Fire brought Chicago to its knees. Evidence of the horrific event could be seen at every turn; in some areas, ruins stretched almost as far as the eye could see. Although the flames spared most heavy industries, including the stockyards and the rail infrastructure, they robbed Chicago of much of its history, leveling entire neighborhoods and wiping out many citizens’ unique way of life. The north division suffered the most damage, with 13,300 of its 13,800 buildings destroyed, leaving almost 75,000 people, including the division’s entire German community, homeless.

Throughout Chicago, the poor suffered the greatest loss of all the socio-economic groups. For many of the impoverished, the fire took everything they owned, their jobs and even their insurance providers, if they had been able to afford them. If they died in the fire and had no local relatives, it is likely that no one in their family ever knew of, or recorded, their death.
More than $200 million in property was lost, about one-third the value of the entire city, and only half of that was insured property.?And because the fire also destroyed many insurance companies, payments to property owners were minimal.

Goodwill & Hard Times
One of the first major tasks taken on by officials after the fire involved assisting victims. To that end, the city established a temporary relief committee that distributed food, supplies and money, which started pouring in from all parts of the United States and the world on the first night of the fire; in all, Chicago received about $5 million in contributions.

But with goodwill and assistance from around the world came a surge of fear, paranoia and anger. Thieves and other criminals from outside the city were eager to take advantage of Chicago’s weakened state in any way they could, including burning other parts of the city and committing murder. As a result, many, especially Chicago’s upper-class citizens, wanted authority restored immediately.

In answer to these concerns, Mayor Mason assigned Lieutenant-General Philip H. Sheridan to enforce security within the city. He then assigned the Chicago Relief and Aid Society to organize and manage the relief effort. Sheridan set to work organizing a specialized group that took on the job of regular police officers, patrolling and securing the streets, and enforcing curfews. The Relief and Aid Society distributed goods including building materials, tools and appliances. The Society also built barracks for the homeless poor and vaccinated about 64,000 people for smallpox.

Yet as the relief effort progressed, so did the bias toward certain victims of the fire. Relief groups focused more on the needs of those who had been well off before the fire, believing that the city’s poor were probably better off after the fire due to the temporary shelter and goods now afforded them. Eventually, aid was either cut off or made difficult to obtain to anyone able to work. Protests developed over discrimination against the poor and working-class citizens. The hardships brought about by financial woes increased as rents were raised, strikes failed and the influx of newcomers to the area took away jobs from the city’s natives—those who needed jobs the most.

By late spring of 1873, Chicago held a “jubilee week” to help proclaim its recovery, but by December of that same year, the city found itself mired in another catastrophe, this one more harmful to the economy than the actual fire. When the Panic of 1873 began in September with the failure of a prominent investment house, Chicago’s economy suffered a heavy blow; one in three workers went jobless, and at one point, unemployed citizens gathered outside the Relief and Aid Society office, chanting “Bread or death.”

In July 1874, Chicago was once again the setting for another large fire that, in some areas, followed the same path as the Great Fire, destroying about 50 acres and more than 800 buildings. For insurers, this was the last straw; they threatened a boycott, which forced the city to improve and strengthen its safety rules and its fire department.

A City Reborn
The effects of the Great Fire were felt long after the flames died out, but not all effects were necessarily negative. The “Great Rebuilding,” as it was called, led to many physical changes within and around Chicago. The downtown section was rebuilt to include taller, more distinct buildings and business locations, while commercial and residential districts, as well as individual neighborhoods, became more clearly defined.

Today, Chicago is considered a thriving metropolis steeped in history and culture. Fire Prevention Week not only asks us to remain vigilant in maintaining fire safety, but also serves as a reminder of the Chicago that once was and the utter devastation fire can cause.

Sources: Information for this report was obtained from the Library of Congress and the Chicago Historical Society.

Cindy Devone-Pacheco is an associate editor for FireRescue magazine.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE

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