Mike Rigert

Mike Rigert


By Mike Rigert

If you believe the folk tales, it was Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that kicked over the lamp on the night of Oct. 8, 1871, that started one of the most well-known fires in American history, the Great Chicago Fire.1

Late one night, when we were all in bed,

Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in the shed.

Her cow kicked it over,

then winked her eye and said,

“There’ll be a hot time in the

old town tonight!”

—popular song lyric, author unknown

But historians and journalists over the years have steered away from the myth about Catherine O’Leary’s cow and instead leaned more toward other theories—some more plausible than others—that might explain what started the devastating conflagration. The fire leveled the entire business district and one-third of the booming Midwestern megalopolis that in 1871 had a population of about 300,000. The fire killed about 300, destroyed 3.3 miles of the city, and left more than 100,000 homeless, marking it as one of the worst disasters of 19th century America.

In 1893, Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter who wrote the O’Leary account, admitted that he had fabricated the story.2 O’Leary claimed she and her husband were already in bed when the fire started; she was later exonerated of all wrongdoing.3 Other possible candidates for the fire’s ignition were two boys lighting cigarettes near O’Leary’s barn, a group of men secretly gambling in the barn, and a particularly heavy meteor shower.

One aspect of the story that experts agree on was that the fire started in or near O’Leary’s barn at approximately 9 p.m. that night and burned well into the next day.

In 1871, the Chicago Fire Department had 185 firefighters and 17 horse-drawn steam engines to protect the entire city. Though the department’s initial response to the fire was speedy, a fatal error took place.4 The watchman, Matthias Schaffer, directed firefighters to the wrong location, allowing a manageable fire to grow out of control.

Firefighters had hoped that the south branch of the Chicago River would act as a natural firebreak but the combination of incredibly high temperatures and unusually strong winds out of the southwest that day enabled the fire, in the form of embers and burning debris, to jump the gap. After jumping the river a second time, the fire progressed north where it grazed the roof of the city’s waterworks, and the building burst into flames. At that point, the city’s water mains ceased to function, leaving firefighters with nothing to extinguish the blaze.

Other circumstances contributed to the unprecedented burning, including drought and the building materials of the era.5 The city had only totaled one inch of rain since July 4 of that year (10 inches is the average), leaving it a virtual tinderbox as more than two-thirds of Chicago’s structures of the period were constructed of wood.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the worst fire that day in the U.S. or even the Midwest. Tragically, a fire in the lumber town of Peshtigo—due north about 250 miles in rural Wisconsin—was one of three other major fires on Oct. 8 along the shores of Lake Michigan. An obscure footnote in history compared to the Great Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo Fire was much more lethal, killing an estimated 1,200 to 2,500 residents and burning roughly 1.5 million acres of the area.6

In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the week of Oct. 9 as the nation’s first Fire Prevention Week in commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire. Since then, National Fire Prevention Week continues to be observed every year by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), including Oct. 5–11 of this year with the theme “Smoke Alarms Save Lives: Test Yours Every Month.”

Perhaps the silver, flame-retardant lining of the Great Chicago Fire was the progress it prompted on several fronts. Americans reflected on the rapid, sky-is-the-limit expansion of their major cities. Some in the religious community also said the disaster was a clarion call to live by simpler, more old-fashioned means rather than in highly populated, captivating metropolises. Many, including famed Chicago architect Frederick Law Olmstead, said the building techniques needed to be improved in response to the fire that preyed on the city’s appetite for splendor.7

“Chicago had a weakness for ‘big things,’ and liked to think that it was outbuilding New York,” he said. “It did a great deal of commercial advertising in its houses-tops. The faults of construction as well as of art in its great showy buildings must have been numerous. Their walls were thin, and were overweighted with gross and coarse misornamentation.”

Olmstead was among those that argued that brick structures and more professional municipal fire and police services could have mitigated much of the calamity’s destruction. Urged forward by insurance executives and fire prevention reformers, the city established new high fire standards and assembled one of the country’s leading fire departments. Investors leapt at the opportunity to play a role in rebuilding Chicago to its previous majesty.

Most telling of the city’s phoenix-like resurgence was the fact that a mere 22 years after the fire, Chicago played host to the grandiose World’s Fair Columbian Exposition that celebrated the 400thanniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. The city hosted more than 21 million global visitors during the event.

One of the few structures that survived the fire is the landmark, castle-like Chicago Water Tower that can still be seen today next to the modern downtown shopping mall, Water Tower Place.

And though O’Leary’s barn is long gone, today on its exact site sits the Chicago Fire Academy, and just outside it, a bronze sculpture of leaping flames and an inscription commemorating the terrible event that woke up America to the importance of fire prevention. γ


1About Fire Prevention Week. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). http://www.nfpa.org/safety-information/fire-prevention-week/about-fire-p... (accessed June 30, 2014).

2“The O’Leary Legend.” Chicago History Museum. http://www.greatchicagofire.org/oleary-legend accessed (June 30, 2014).

3Bales, Richard F. “Did the Cow Do It? A New Look at the Cause of The Great Chicago Fire.” Illinois Historical Journal 90 No. 1 (Spring 1997): Northern Illinois University. http://dig.lib.niu.edu/ISHS/ishs-1997spring/ishs-1997spring02.pdf (accessed June 30, 2014).

4Miller, Donald. “City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America.” Simon & Schuster; New York. 1997.

5Murphy, Jim. “The Great Fire.” U.S.A. Scholastic Inc. First edition; Chicago. 2010.

6Tasker, G. “Worst fire largely unknown.” The Baltimore Sun. Oct. 10, 2003. http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2003-10-10/news/0310100309_1_firestorm-... (accessed June 30, 2014).

7Pauly, John J. “The Great Chicago Fire as a National Event.” American Quarterly. Winter 1984; 35 (5): 673-674.