Twelve things to know about the Great Chicago Fire

Twelve things to know about the Great Chicago Fire
Dearborn and Monroe (Public Domain)

The anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire is Monday. On the evening of October 8, 1871, the fire started and spread fast due to a long drought and high shifting winds. The fire destroyed over 3 square miles of the city during the two-day conflagration.

Here are twelve things about the Great Chicago Fire:

1.) The fire started in or near the barn of the O'Leary family. The family cow did not kick over a lantern, as legend has it. The story of Mrs. O'Leary's cow is attributed to anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment at the time. The cause of the fire was never determined. The Chicago Fire Academy sits on the site of the O'Leary farm.

2.) Due to a poor fire watch system, firefighters were first sent to the wrong address. They were worn out from fighting an earlier fire in another part of the city. The fire destroyed the water pumping system, making fighting the fire difficult.

3.) Hundreds of people died. Over 100,000 people, roughly one-third of the population, were left homeless.

4.) The commercial interests and local officials swore to rebuild the city. The rebuilding started within days. There were advantages. Chicago was a lumber trading center. Some lumber yards were spared, as they were located below grade on the banks of the river, the fire swept over them. Being a transportation hub, building materials flowed into Chicago by rail and water within days.

5.) Donations of money, food, drinking water, clothing, and various other goods poured in from all over the nation and world.

6.) The aftermath of the fire sparked an architectural boom in Chicago. Due to the devastation, the fire and demolition of standing buildings left a blank slate for architects to work from.

Attributed_to_George_N._Barnard. Public Domain.

Panoramic view of the fire's destruction. (Attributed to George N. Barnard/Public Domain.)

7.) Several small homes were built from a type of prefab plan to temporarily house people. Some of these homes are still standing, most in the Old Town Neighborhood.

Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

8.) Chicago was rebuilt due to the partnership between the commercial interests and politicians. They developed a united will and can do spirit to rebuild and rebuild better. Their spirit, helped by newspapers, spread to the population.

9.) Methods of fireproofing buildings were developed in Chicago. These innovations were employed nationally in various building and fire codes. Firefighting was reformed, setting some national standards.

10.) Chicago's position as a commercial, transportation, and trade hub had more to do with geography and topography than anything else. Chicago was able to capitalize on its unique geographic location. Chicago had to be rebuilt. There was too much to lose nationwide if the city was not up and running again.

11.) One of the reasons Chicago was chosen for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition was its rapid rebuilding after the fire, its rapid population growth, and the knowledge and confidence the city could build a world-class fair.

12.) Chicago and its population grew faster in the twenty years after the fire than the thirty years preceding it. Chicago's phenomenal growth was renowned internationally. According to census figures, in 1870, the population was 298, 977. By 1900, the population grew to 1, 698, 575, ranking Chicago as the fifth largest city in the world. By 1933, the year of Chicago's second Worlds Fair, the population was over 1.3 million people.

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