《新安全》 (2004年 第十一期)
Wikipedia–Great Chicago Fire
The Great Chicago Fire was a conflagration that burned from Sunday October 8 to early Tuesday October 10, 1871, killing hundreds and destroying about four square miles in Chicago, Illinois. Though the fire was one of the largest U.S. disasters of the 19th century, the rebuilding that began almost immediately spurred Chicago’s development into one of the most populous and economically important American and international cities.
The fire’s origin
The fire started at about 9 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, in or around a small shed 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, but Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter who created the cow story, admitted in 1893 that he had made it up because he thought it would make colorful copy.
It was aided by the city’s overuse of wood for building, the strong northwesterly winds, and a drought before the fire. The city also made fatal errors by not reacting soon enough and citizens by not caring about the fire when it began. The firefighters were also exhausted from fighting a fire that happened the day before.
Spread of the blaze
When the fire broke out, neighbors hurried to protect the O’Learys’ house in front of the cowshed from the blaze; the house actually did survive with only minor damage. However, the city’s fire department didn’t receive the first alarm until 9:40 p.m., when a fire alarm was pulled at a pharmacy. The fire department was alerted when the fire was still small, but the guard on duty did not respond as he thought that the glow in the sky was from the smoldering flames of a fire the day before. When the blaze got bigger, the guard realized that there actually was a new fire and sent firefighters, but in the wrong direction.
Soon the fire had spread to neighboring frame houses and sheds. Superheated winds drove flaming brands northeastward. People still did not worry, even though in fact they were in danger.
When the fire engulfed a tall church west of the Chicago River, the flames crossed the south branch of the Chicago River. Helping the fire spread were firewood in the closely packed wooden buildings, ships lining the river, the city’s elevated wood-plank sidewalks and roads, and the commercial lumber and coal yards along the river. The size of the blaze generated extremely strong winds and heat, which ignited rooftops far ahead of the actual flames.
The attempts to stop the fire were unsuccessful. The mayor had even called surrounding cities for help, but by that point the fire was simply too large to contain. When the fire destroyed the waterworks, just north of the Chicago River, the city’s water supply was cut off, and the firefighters were forced to give up.
As the fire raged through the central business district, it destroyed hotels, department stores, Chicago’s City Hall, the opera house and theaters, churches and printing plants. The fire continued spreading northward, driving fleeing residents across bridges on the Chicago River. There was mass panic as the blaze jumped the river’s north branch and continued burning through homes and mansions on the city’s north side. Residents fled into Lincoln Park and to the shores of Lake Michigan, where thousands sought refuge from the flames.
The fire finally burned itself out, aided by diminishing winds and a light drizzle that began falling late on Monday night. From its origin at the O’Leary property, it had burned a path of nearly complete destruction of some 34 blocks to Fullerton Avenue on the north side.
Once the fire had ended, the smoldering remains were still too hot for a survey of the damage to be completed for days. Eventually it was determined that the fire destroyed an area about four miles (6 km) long and averaging 3/4 mile (1 km) wide, encompassing more than 2,000 acres (8 km?). Destroyed were more than 73 miles (120 km) of roads, 120 miles (190 km) of sidewalk, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings, and $222 million in property – about a third of the city’s valuation. Of the 300,000 inhabitants, 90,000 were left homeless. The fire was said by local newspapers to have been so fierce that it surpassed the damage done by Napoleon’s siege of Moscow in 1812. Remarkably, some buildings did survive the fire, such as the then-new Chicago Water Tower, which remains today as an unofficial memorial to the fire’s destructive power. It was one of just five public buildings and one ordinary bungalow spared by the flames within the disaster zone. The O’Leary home and Holy Family Church, the Roman Catholic congregation of the O’Leary family, were both saved by shifts in the wind direction that kept them outside the burnt district.
After the fire, 125 bodies were recovered. Final estimates of the fatalities ranged from 200-300, considered a small number for such a large fire. In later years, other disasters in the city would claim more lives: 571 died in the Iroquois Theater fire in 1903; and, in 1915, 835 died in the sinking of the Eastland excursion boat in the Chicago River. Yet the Great Chicago Fire remains Chicago’s most well-known disaster, for the magnitude of the destruction and the city’s subsequent recovery and growth.
Land speculators, such as Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, and business owners quickly set about rebuilding the city. Donations of money, food, clothing and furnishings arrived quickly from across the nation. The first load of lumber for rebuilding was delivered the day the last burning building was extinguished. Only 22 years later, Chicago hosted more than 21 million visitors during the World’s Columbian Exposition. Another example of Chicago’s rebirth from the Great Fire ashes is the now famed Palmer House hotel. The original building burned to the ground in the fire just 13 days after its grand opening. Without hesitating, Potter Palmer secured a loan and rebuilt the hotel in a lot across the street from the original, proclaiming it to be “The World’s First Fireproof Building”.
In 1956, the remaining structures on the original O’Leary property were torn down for construction of the Chicago Fire Academy, a training facility for Chicago firefighters located at 558 W. DeKoven Street. A bronze sculpture of stylized flames entitled Pillar of Fire by sculptor Egon Weiner was erected on the point of origin in 1961.
Questioning the fire
Catherine O’Leary was the perfect scapegoat: she was a woman, immigrant, and Catholic-–a combination which did not fare well in the political climate of the time in Chicago. This story was circulating in Chicago even before the flames had died out and was noted in the Chicago Tribune’s first post-fire issue. However, Michael Ahern, the reporter that came with the story would retract it in 1893, admitting that it was fabricated.
More recently, amateur historian Richard Bales has come to believe it was actually started when Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan, who first reported the fire, ignited some hay in the barn while trying to steal some milk. However, evidence recently reported in the Chicago Tribune by Anthony DeBartolo suggests Louis M. Cohn may have started the fire during a craps game. Cohn may also have admitted to starting the fire in a lost will, according to Alan Wykes in his 1964 book The Complete Illustrated Guide to Gambling.
An alternative theory, first suggested in 1882, is that the Great Chicago Fire was caused by a meteor shower. At a 2004 conference of the Aerospace Corporation and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, engineer and physicist Robert Wood suggested that the fire began when Biela’s Comet broke up over the Midwest and rained down below. That four large fires took place, all on the same day, all on the shores of Lake Michigan (see Related Events), suggests a common root cause. Eyewitnesses reported sighting spontaneous ignitions, lack of smoke, “balls of fire” falling from the sky, and blue flames. According to Wood, these accounts suggest that the fires were caused by the methane that is commonly found in comets.
Another possible explanation for the coincident conflagrations is that winds associated with the approach of a low-pressure weather system promoted the spread of fires in an area that was tinder-dry due to a prolonged drought.
Structures that survived the fire
-St. Michaels Church
-St. Ignatius College Preparatory School
-Chicago Water Tower
-Old St. Patrick’s Church
In that hot, dry and windy autumn, three other major fires occurred along the shores of Lake Michigan at the same time as the Great Chicago Fire. Some 400 miles (600 km) to the north, a prairie fire driven by strong winds consumed the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin along with a dozen other villages, killing 1,200 to 2,500 people and charring approximately 1.5 million acres (6,000 km?). Though the Peshtigo Fire remains the deadliest in American history, the remoteness of the region meant it was little noticed at the time. Across the lake to the east, the town of Holland, Michigan and other nearby areas burned to the ground. Some 100 miles to the north of Holland the lumbering community of Manistee, Michigan also suffered a tremendous fire.
In pop culture
Gary Larson’s The Far Side comic strip jokes that the fire may have been started by secret agent cows.
In 2006, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, during a week in Chicago, featured a sketch in which Mrs. O’Leary’s cow finally received justice for starting the fire: It was strapped to a bomb and given a chance to disarm it by cutting the blue wire. Sadly, cows are colorblind, so Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was blown to bits.
In The Simpsons episode “Simpsons Tall Tales”, Homer plays Paul Bunyan who lives among local townspeople. While there he crushes their houses and consumes all their food. Eventually, the townspeople drug him and drag him out of their town. However when a meteor is soon to hit the town, the townspeople call Paul back to help them. Paul soon agrees and throws the meteor towards Chicago, which is how the Great Chicago Fire is started.
In the Histeria episode “The Wheel of History”, Nostradamus tells the story of the fire and it is presented as a discussion on Barry Ding Live (a spoof of Larry King Live) where all the protagonists are interviewed. Daisy, a cow, was arrested following a slow cow chase (alluding to the slow car chase that led to the arrest of O.J. Simpson) and denies starting the fire, claiming the charges are “udderly false”. There are phone in segments from Mrs. O’ Leary, Peg Leg as well as the reporter who first carried the story (as well as a phone call from Cato), all of whom are shown accidentally starting fires themselves.
Richard C. Meredith’s science fiction novel Run, Come See Jerusalem! contains a vivid description of the Great Chicago Fire as seen by a time-traveler.
In the second season episode of Early Edition titled “Hot Time In The Old Town,” the main character, Gary Hobson, travels back in time and trys to prevent the fire. When he arrives in the time period dazed and confused, he is taken in by an Irish immigrant who turns out to be the husband of Catherine O’Leary.
In the 2006 film The Break-Up, Vince Vaughn makes many references to the fire.
Sufjan Stevens sings “Oh great fire of great disaster” in “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” on his 2005 album Illinois.
^ The O’Leary Legend. Chicago History Museum. Retrieved on 2007-03-18.
^ Chicago Landmarks. retrieved Dec 14, 2006
^ The Great Chicago Fire by Robert Cromie, published by Rutledge Hill Press ISBN 1-55853-264-1 and ISBN 1-55853-265-X (pbk. edition)
1871 The Great Fire
For more detailed online information, the The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory by the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University is an excellent resource.
No one knows how the fire started in the cowbarn at the rear of the Patrick O’Leary cottage at 137 DeKoven Street on Chicago’s West Side. A report on the cause may be found in CPL’s Deaths, Disturbances, Disasters and Disorders in Chicago Selected Bibliography.
The blaze began about 9 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, 1871. By midnight the fire had jumped the river’s south branch and by 1:30 a.m., the business district was in flames. Shortly thereafter the fire raced northward across the main river.
The waterworks were evacuated although the tower was not badly damaged and still stands. During Monday the fire burned as far as Fullerton Avenue. Rainfall which started about midnight helped put out the last of the flames. 300 Chicagoans were dead, 90,000 homeless, and the property loss was $200 million.
Chicago quickly rebuilt and by 1875 little evidence of the disaster remained. The 100th anniversary of the fire was commemorated during the period October 3-10, 1971, with a series of events including a fire centennial dinner during which the Mayor expressed thanks to cities and countries that sent money after the fire. Other events were a fire prevention parade on State Street and an enormous lakefront fireworks display.
A Chronological History of Chicago: 1673-
Compiled by Chicago Municipal Reference Library, City of Chicago
Updated by Municipal Reference Collection, Chicago Public Library
Last Updated: 05/2005
The Great Chicago Fire
It was a very dry and hot summer and fall of 1871. Even though fires seemed to be a lot worse than usual, the fireman thought they could take on any fire until the day of October 8 1871, came. Back in 1871 people blamed Mrs. O’Leary’s cow because the fire started on there street, but the dry summer helped a lot. Now people think that it was someone who was not being careful with matches or cigarettes. The wind most likely made the fire catch on house after house after house.
The day it started, people believed that Mrs. O’Leary was milking her cow, then, all of a sudden the lantern nearby was kicked over by the cow and a blazing fire started catching on to hay and houses. The fire was going at a speed which made it get bigger and larger every second, chasing people down DeKoven Street. The wooden houses made it easier for the fire to spread. When it reached the Chicago River, people thought they were safe, but the ashes jumped over the river and caught on more dry wood so the fire could rush to the center of the city. Panic and cries made people jump into the river or lake to avoid getting burnt. Another place to go was Lincoln Park because even though the fire was going everywhere, a light rain for about 25 hours made the fire die down before it reached Lincoln Park.
There were a few buildings that did not get destroyed. The Chicago Water Tower was one of them. The principal reason was because the Water Tower was one of the few buildings that wasn’t made out of wood. It was made out of limestone. Of course the fire ruined it a little but after the fire, workers made it even better than it had been before. That is why the Water Tower still stands today.
When the fire was over, 300 people of the 300,000 in Chicago were killed, 100,000 were left homeless, 17,500 buildings were destroyed, 73 miles of street were destroyed and $200 million of property was destroyed. People immediately started to rebuild. Architects, people and even firemen were working nonstop for 3 months. Cities all over the world sent supplies, money, and enough books to give Chicago the largest public library of its time. Old businesses were rebuilt and Chicago had enough industry to need a lot more workers then before. To make more room for buildings, Chicagoans used the trash from the fire to make a much bigger lakeshore by adding the trash to the existing lakeshore. That is why the Water Tower is no longer near the lake shore. After 3 months 300,000 buildings were built.
Many lessons were learned, such as fireproof houses were needed in the case of big fires. Even though the houses we have today aren’t even fireproof, people back then wanted the best they could get. Also, they needed gasoline powered trucks so they could get to the fires faster. The horses didn’t do that well with the firemen.
Another rule was that floors and roofs needed to withstand fire for at least 3 hours. The last rule was to have a much better fire alarm system. The old ones were not trustworthy enough. Those were all the new rules that they needed. And remember that all this confusion believed to be started from a cow on the corner of DeKoven and Jefferson.