October 8,1871: Great Chicago Fire begins

October 8: General Interest
1871: Great Chicago Fire begins

On this
day in 1871, flames spark in the Chicago barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary,
igniting a 2-day blaze that kills between 200 and 300 people, destroys 17,450
buildings,leaves 100,000 homeless and causes an estimated $200 million (in 1871
dollars; $3 billion in 2007 dollars) in damages. Legend has it that a cow kicked
over a lantern in the O’Leary barn and started the fire, but other theories hold
that humans or even a comet may have been responsible for the event that left
four square miles of the Windy City, including its business district, in ruins.
Dry weather and an abundance of wooden buildings, streets and sidewalks made
Chicago vulnerable to fire. The city averaged two fires per day in 1870; there
were 20 fires throughout Chicago the week before the Great Fire of 1871.

Despite the fire’s devastation, much of Chicago’s physical
infrastructure, including its water, sewage and transportation systems, remained
intact. Reconstruction efforts began quickly and spurred great economic
development and population growth, as architects laid the foundation for a
modern city featuring the world’s first skyscrapers. At the time of the fire,
Chicago’s population was approximately 324,000; within nine years, there were
500,000 Chicagoans. By 1893, the city was a major economic and transportation
hub with an estimated population of 1.5 million. That same year, Chicago was
chosen to host the World’s Columbian Exposition, a major tourist attraction
visited by 27.5 million people, or approximately half the U.S. population at the

In 1997, the Chicago City Council exonerated Mrs. O’Leary and her
cow. She turned into a recluse after the fire, and died in 1895


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