The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

Artist depiction of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871

The origin of the Great Chicago Fire has become a source of folklore since 1871, when the blaze killed an estimated 300 people and destroyed thousands of buildings. The fire appears to have originated in an old wooden barn belonging to Patrick and Catherine O’Leary and, according to folklore, began when their milk cow kicked a lantern and knocked it over. However, Mrs. Catherine O’Leary adamantly denied this account of how the disastrous fire started. So what really happened?

What Really Started the Great Chicago Fire?

Illustration of Mrs. O'Leary's cow starting the Great Fire of Chicago

No one is sure what really started the fire. October 1871 was exceptionally dry for the season, and most of the buildings in Chicago were wooden and, consequently, susceptible to fire. The fire could have been a cow-induced accident or a matter of heat, dry air, and unprotected buildings. Regardless of how the O’Leary barn really caught fire on October 8, the events that followed couldn’t have been predicted any more than they could have been stopped.

What Was the Damage of the Great Chicago Fire?

The fire blazed for nearly two days, leaving miles of land scorched in the fire’s wake. Thousands of buildings were destroyed, causing more than $200 million in damages, and approximately 300 lives were lost in the disaster (with another 100,000 people left homeless or displaced).

Efforts to control the fire were minimally effective until a rainstorm brought aid on October 10. A combination of the rainstorm and the fire naturally burning itself out helped contain and end the raging fire. Finally, the Great Fire of Chicago was over.

The end of the fire didn’t mean the end of trouble though. In the weeks following, panicked citizens faced martial law in response to the chaos of the events and the lawlessness that ensued during and following the disaster.

Building ruins as a result of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Post office in Chicago in ruins after the Great Chicago Fire.

Ruins on the water in Chicago as a result of the Great Chicago Fire

How Did Chicago Rebuild after the Great Fire?

Reconstruction efforts were made not only to the homes and buildings that were destroyed during the event, but also to the laws affecting building codes and fire safety to prevent future fires. Over time, the people not only recovered, but they also flourished. The city saw profound economic and population growth and even became home to the world’s first skyscrapers, paving the way for modern architects to create innovative structures worldwide.

Did Your Ancestors Live through the Great Chicago Fire?

Did you have ancestors living in the United States—or even in Chicago—during the time of the Great Chicago Fire? You can search for them in the 1880 U.S. census for free by clicking the button below.

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