The State of Illinois was founded in the year 1818 and 15 years later in 1833 the City of Chicago was created. Chicago is a large well-known city which lies along Lake Michigan. In the 19th century the city was flourishing and doing extremely well up until a certain event called ‘The Great Chicago Fire’. The Great Chicago Fire caused the destruction of a large part of the city of Chicago, it burned thousands of buildings killed around 300 people, amounted to 200 million dollars’ worth of damages, and caused the rebuild of the city of Chicago that we have come to know today.
Before the Fire, in the early 1870s, the United States was turning into an urban industrial nation. Chicago found itself at the center of this transformation. In 1871, it was in the process of changing its reputation from being a regional commercial center to an industrial city playing a large role in a worldwide economy. However later in 1871 something happened which would disrupt this process. What happened was on Sunday evening, Oct. 8, 1871, shortly after 9 o’clock. It is believed that a fire broke out in the barn behind the home of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary on DeKoven Street on Chicago’s West Side.
The O Leary’s lived in the southwestern quarter of Chicago, divided by the North and South branches of the Chicago River. The fire started from Daisy, one of the O’Learys’ cows, the cow kicked over a lantern which set some straw on fire which started the tremendous blaze. The O’Leary’s denied that this started the fire that took the City of Chicago over in 1871. Although this is the event that most likely started the great fire it is not proven to be one hundred percent true, as there are rumors that the fire was started by humans elsewhere however all signs point to Daisy. Cow or no cow, the city was all too vulnerable to fire. Beginning in the 1830s, Chicago was growing a little bit too quickly. It was emerging into a rough and bustling metropolis and was becoming a big-time city. The buildings in the city were built suddenly and without care. The high-class residents had built brick homes, while most of the middle- and lower-class residents lived in structures such as wooden cottages, sheds, barns, and crowded slums. The city was filled with wooden sidewalks, and many of the streets also were paved with wood and to make matters worse the summer of 1871 had been extremely arid.
Fires were extremely common in Chicago in this time period however a multitude of factors came together to turn what would have been just a small fire into a huge blaze that the people of Chicago will always remember on that Sunday night in October. The night before the fire the Chicago firemen were exhausted due to them having to deal with another fire which they had to put out, the fire was large, but it was contained and nothing to bad came from it. Although the fire that broke out on Sunday was spotted and the firefighters were alerted, the firefighters were initially given the wrong location which gave it more time to expand and get bigger. A strong, and arid wind from the southwest helped the fire to move the South Branch of the Chicago River and drove it into the center of the city. Flames started to devour public buildings, even buildings that were supposed to be fireproof. Wind-borne embers spread the fire and made it almost impossible to control. The roof of the Pumping Station, which supplied city water, collapsed, eliminating it as a source of water for firefighters.
In the beginning of the fire, crowds of people gathered around to watch the immense fire take place, and saw the amount of damage and destruction it was causing but people soon realized the danger in which they were in. Families and people started to abandon their houses and fled through the streets. They packed together on the bridges trying to get across the river, but the bridges caught on fire, as well. (Barbara Brooks Simons). Wooden ships on the river ignited, as did pollution and grease on the river’s surface. It seemed as if the whole world were engulfed in flames. One eyewitness said: “It was like a snowstorm, only the flakes were red instead of white” (Barbara Brooks Simons). Looting and drunkenness, was a problem as well. People would pay other people to help them move their goods away from their burring homes and these people who were moving their employer’s goods would often steal a large portion of these goods. On Tuesday morning, October 10, rain finally began to fall. However, it was too late as a large portion of Chicago was in a smoking ruin.
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The burned-out people gathered in groups on open land patches of prairie west and northwest of the city, in the South Division along Lake Michigan, in the North Division’s Lincoln Park, and along ‘the Sands’, a patch of lakeshore just north of the Main Branch of the Chicago River. Even when the fire was out the city laid there so intensely hot that it took a day or two before it was even possible to survey the destruction. There was a section of the city which received the title of the ‘Burnt District’. The Burnt District was a body of land which was 4 miles long and 3 quarters of a mile wide, it included over 28 miles of streets, 120 miles of sidewalks, and over 2,000 lampposts, along with countless trees, shrubs, and flowering plants in a place that liked to call itself ‘the Garden City of the West’. The fire caused the destruction of 18,000 buildings and around 100,000 people lost their homes and workplaces. People were trapped and were crushed to death in their own homes. An estimated 200 to 300 people died, though no exact number is known. The fire left around a third of the city’s population homeless and only half of the damage was insured.
The North Division was the hardest hit. Around 13,300 of 13,800 buildings in this portion of the city were destroyed, and this caused almost 75,000 people to become homeless. Almost the entire German community in the North Division was burned out. The fire also destroyed the genteel neighborhood of the Old Settlers. Gone was I. N. Arnold’s art collection, library, and Lincoln memorabilia. Gone also were his lilacs, elms, barn, and greenhouse. However, the city of Chicago received some luck since most of its heavy industries, including the Union Stock Yard were located west or south of the burnt district, and were out of harm’s way. The downtown railroad depots were damaged, but not fully destroyed. What the fire could not touch at all was Chicago’s most critical feature, and that is its location. The city’s location made it so accessible to the nation’s resources and markets.
Within a week after the fire 5,000 new makeshift buildings were ready for occupation and work on 200 more permanent structures was underway. The city recovered quickly, erasing most signs of the fire’s destruction within a year, and started to make less things out of wood. A large reason the city was able to recover so quickly was the fact that most of the wharfs, lumberyards, and mills along the Chicago River survived, as did two-thirds of the grain elevators to the west. The industries surrounding agriculture and trade kept the city’s finances as stable as possible and employed thousands of people. Another reason it recovered so quickly was because of the fact that most of the railroad tracks were not damaged. This allowed shipments of aid and resources to come flooding in from across the country and around the world. Chicago’s economy grew even faster in the year after the fire than it had in the year before.
A new downtown which had taller buildings, including the first skyscraper, was built. A series of laws were passed which required new buildings to be constructed out of stone, marble, brick, and limestone. However, this would play a factor since most of the poor people of Chicago could not afford these fireproof materials as well as the fact that they could not afford insurance. Since these poor people did not have the ability to rebuild or insure their property, thousands of people and small businesses were crowded out of Chicago. The location of the O’Leary barn which just so happened to survive the fire is the location of the Chicago Fire Academy.
In conclusion, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is something which will never be forgotten. The Fire resulted in the destruction of 18,000 buildings. The fire also resulted in the death of an estimated 200 to 300 people and amounted to 200 million dollars’ worth of damages and left an impact on a city which will never be forgotten.