What Was the Great Chicago Fire?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Great Chicago Fire was a conflagration which swept through the business district of the American city of Chicago in 1871, leaving 100,000 people homeless and causing two million US dollars worth of damage. Although the Great Chicago Fire caused significant damage, it ended up being beneficial for the city, because the wave of construction which followed propelled Chicago into the 20th century as one of the leading cities in America. Several Chicago museums have displays about the fire, and the Chicago Water Tower — one of the few buildings left standing in the district ravaged by the fire — serves as an unofficial memorial.

After the Great Chicago Fire, the downtown district was rebuilt with modern skyscrapers.
After the Great Chicago Fire, the downtown district was rebuilt with modern skyscrapers.

There is a famous Chicago tale about the origins of the fire. According to legend, the fire began when a cow in the shed of Patrick and Catherine O'Leary kicked over a lantern, setting fire to a batch of hay. This legend was partially fed by news reports in which the O'Learys were scapegoated for the fire, especially after their home miraculously survived the blaze. Inquests in the wake of the fire proved that the O'Leary cow was innocent, but the story lives on.

Legend states that the Great Chicago Fire began when a cow kicked over a lantern and ignited a batch of hay.
Legend states that the Great Chicago Fire began when a cow kicked over a lantern and ignited a batch of hay.

In actuality, the Great Chicago Fire does appear to have started in a shed on 8 October 1871, but the city was tinder-dry and there was a strong wind blowing, so even the smallest spark or open flame could have set off the blaze. By the time the fire was noticed and an alarm was pulled, it had already gotten slightly out of control. The fire department unfortunately raced off in the wrong direction, and by the time the error was discovered, the fire had grown to be too big to handle, especially after it consumed the Chicago Waterworks, cutting off the supply of water to fight the fire.

The Great Chicago Fire allegedly started when some hay caught on fire.
The Great Chicago Fire allegedly started when some hay caught on fire.

Two days later, the Great Chicago Fire had largely burned itself out, but many areas were too hot to touch for days. Hundreds died in the fire, which consumed 4 acres (1.5 hectares) next to Lake Michigan in the heart of the city. Surveying the devastation, the citizens of Chicago realized that the fire had provided an unlikely opportunity to rebuild the downtown district with modern skyscrapers, wide streets, and ample fire protections.

Although many people regard New York City as the home of the skyscraper in the United States, Chicago was actually the ruler of the skyscraper landscape through the early 20th century, thanks to the land cleared by the Great Chicago Fire. The businesses in the downtown district wanted to rebuild with better, flashier buildings, and they succeeded in setting off a craze for ever-taller structures which has since spread to the rest of the world.

The Great Chicago Fire left 100,000 people homeless in 1871.
The Great Chicago Fire left 100,000 people homeless in 1871.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Crispety

Oasis11-I think that they only buildings that survived the fire were the Chicago Water tower, the Holy Family Catholic Church and the O’Leary family home.

As a result of the fire, Chicago developed various fire reform measures that are considered among the best in the country today.

This is another good thing that came out of such a tragedy. The same happened in South Florida with the destruction of Hurricane Andrew.

The building codes in South Florida were changed to require concrete block construction instead of wood construction.

South Florida now has among the toughest construction standards in the country. In fact most insurance companies will offer lower premiums on homes built after 1992, which was when the hurricane first hit.

oasis11

Behaviourism- That fire was terrible.m but some good came out of it.

The great fire of Chicago 1871 shows that even in the event of such tragedy some remarkable things can occur.

As a result of the great fire of Chicago 1871 there was a construction boom that created a lot of jobs for the people of Chicago and offered them an opportunity to rebuild their city to their liking.

It is now a thriving city with much commerce. The great Chicago fire for kids should represent a story of renewal and rebirth.

Kids should see that although the city was devastated because of the fire it came back stronger and better than ever. This is really a lesson on optimism and hope for the future when you are feeling the most despair.

behaviourism

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is a great example of the way our view of history is changed by legends. The idea that a cow could start a fire which destroyed a large part of a major city sounds ridiculous, yet having just a few people spread such a story makes it seem true.

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