The Great Chicago Fire: Significance, History & Impact

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

The people of Chicago had seen some big fires in their city during the nineteenth century, but this one topped them all. Learn about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the legacy of the Great Rebuilding that followed.

A City in Turmoil

Forget the fictional Sharknado. Imagine waking up one night to witness real firenadoes - whirls of fire that are tearing through your city like tornadoes, sending burning debris and embers flying through the air.

This is what many of the residents of Chicago had to contend with as they fled for their lives during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Fire whirls spread the flames quickly.
A firenado

This was not the first big fire that Chicago had faced and it wouldn't be the last. Yet the Great Fire would go a long way to changing what was done to prevent fires like it. It would also spark a whole new approach to building cities, which had a ripple effect beyond the state of Illinois.

Lead up to the Fire

Fires were common during this period in history for a number of reasons. The city of Chicago's population had been growing dramatically in the mid-1800s. Structures were built quickly, cheaply, and in close proximity to keep pace with this increase in people and businesses. From the buildings to the lumber yards to the sidewalks to the roadways themselves, wood was everywhere in Chicago during this time.

Pair these conditions with the relatively limited fire technology of the era and you have a recipe for disaster. Firefighters really needed to catch the fires early to avoid catastrophic damage. To make matters worse, in the fall of 1871, very little rain had fallen on Chicago, leaving extremely dry conditions, poised to ignite in a moment.

The Spread of the Fire

While you may hear the legend that the fire was started when a cow kicked over a kerosene lamp, there's little evidence that this is the case. The real start of the fire has never been confirmed, but we know it began on the city's southwest side in or near a barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O'Leary on the evening of October 8, 1871.

Firefighters had some serious bad luck when they were originally instructed to go to the incorrect location. On top of that, fires leading up to October 8 had left their resources and equipment depleted. They were facing an impossible battle when they arrived on the scene to find the fire already way out of control.

People ran in panic to save their lives.
An illustration of the Great Chicago Fire and the panic it caused

This destructive fire, or conflagration, spread rapidly north and east. Even the Chicago River couldn't stop it, since it was slick with flammable pollutants. Meanwhile, the conditions spawned firenadoes, also known as fire whirls or fire devils, which served to spread the fire even further. Flames continued into the area known as the Loop, the central business district of the city.

Even structures made partly from iron could not endure the heat. And of course, all of the wood made this fire unstoppable until it finally petered out on October 10, two days later, with a merciful light rain falling at the tail end of this saga.

Aftermath

Approximately 100,000 people - about a third of the city's population - were suddenly homeless after the fire. Property had been destroyed in an area about four miles long and nearly a mile wide, including the center of commerce. An estimated 300 people had died.

Martial law was declared, lasting for several weeks. Some were paid insurance claims while others had no proof of their insurance coverage because their policies burned up in the fire itself. Relief efforts from around the world helped people to deal with the crisis, though they faced a long road ahead. Businesses and financial institutions were leveled, initially grinding life to a halt for the people of the city.

Approximately a third of the city was directly affected by the fire.
City map showing where the fire caused destruction

The Great Rebuilding

Conversations about rebuilding began quickly, attracting the attention of architects who were eager to create a modern American city, virtually from scratch. These innovative architects became known as the Chicago School. They took up the task of rebuilding the city. Due to its geography, Chicago wasn't going to be able to grow outwards. With water and railroads surrounding it, the city would have to grow upwards, which meant taller buildings made of steel frames. Elevator technology also made these first skyscrapers possible.

An example of Chicago School architecture
An early skyscraper from the Chicago School

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