THE CHICAGO FIRE of 1871
The summer of 1871 had been an unusually dry one in Chicago. Between July and
October, only 5 inches of rain fell. In addition to twenty-seven fires in the first week of
October, on Saturday night, October 7, a blaze broke out in a planning mill on the West
Side and destroyed almost every building in a four block area before it was brought under
control Sunday morning. They lost a hose and other fire-fighting equipment, including
one of seventeen steam fire engines and a hose cart. Nearly half of Chicago's 185 firemen
fought this fire and many were on duty all day, so they were already exhausted when
the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 struck.
Some people think that the fire was started by Mrs. O'leary's cow kicking over a
lantern. Others have different theories, but one thing is for sure,on the Sunday evening of
October 8, 1871 a blaze started in Mrs. O' leary's barn. Daniel sullivan sat on the wooden
sidewalk when he saw a flame in Mrs. O'leary's barn. He managed to save a half grown
calf. By now everyone in the neighborhood woke up, including the sleeping O'learys. The
"America" hose cart was the first to reach the scene. They were soon joined by the
"Little Giant" engine company. A neighbor ran to a drug store to turn on an alarm but the
alarm failed to work. The court house watchman had given wrong directions but later
tried to correct his mistake, but the alarm operator was eating dinner so she refused to
correct the mistake. The fire engines went about 1 mile south of where the fire was. By
the time the problem was resolved ,a number of hose carts and fire engines were fighting
to keep this fire under control, but the wind had spread bits of buring debris. Several
homes, one block north, had caught on fire. The flames were so intense that one fireman's
hat was warped and his clothing was smoking.
The fire spread swiftly through Chicago. Frantic householders and businessmen
whose building were in the probable path of the fire, piled all their possessions in to the
street. Both the west and south side were cover in a blanket of smoke. As Thomas Byrne
of Hose Elevator No.2 said,"you couldn't see anything over you but fire....No clouds, no
stars, nothing but fire." The north side started in flames on Monday. As people fled east
to the lake, odd things were saved, such examples are: a rooster, a fire place mantle, a
pack of playing cards, a stovepipe, an empty box, a feather duster, and a wooden Indian.
Shortly before the court house burned down 100 prisoners were released. Most of the
prisoners began looting. When the Water Works was hit by the fire, many of the firemen
went home. Finally around 11P.M. the wind died down and showers began falling. The
fire was over, even though many piles of wood remained smoldering.
90,000 people were left homeless and 300 people died. 2124 acres were destroyed
in the raging inferno, a total of $200,000,000 in property loss. After a huge fire like this
you would expect for it to take a long time to rebuild, but with in a month, 4,000 new
buildings were put up.
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