Great Chicago Fire
The population of Chicago, Illinois, had grown from 4,000 in 1837 to the huge number of 330,000 in 1871. This increase in population had come about so quickly that efficient plans had not been made as to how the city would grow. Due to the large number of immigrants who arrived in the city, many thousands of wooden housing structures were hastily built amidst some existing brick homes.
The Chicago Fire Department lacked the staff to support the city's needs. From July 3 to October 9, 1871, only 2 1/2 inches of rain had fallen. Many fires had broken out during that time. Only one water 'station' existed in the city. As the story goes, on October 8, a very hot Sunday evening in 1871, a fire began in a barn belonging to Patrick and Catherine O'Leary. The fire burned until Tuesday morning and destroyed more than three square miles of Chicago. 300 people died. However, The O'Leary house wasn't touched by the fire which traveled in the opposite direction.
The story of O'Leary's barn being the site of the start of the fire has never been proven. Several other interesting theories have been put forward. One even suggests that a fragment of a comet hit the city. Scientists say that such a fragment from Biela's comet could have been the cause of the fire at that time.
During the previous year, the city had experienced about two fires a week, and even 20 just the previous week. A very big one occurred the night before the Great Chicago Fire. The fire on October 8 was pushed by southwest winds which were blowing at 20 miles per hour. It headed straight for the center of town. At midnight, part of the fire crossed a branch of the Chicago River. The fire reached the Courthouse Tower which was the city jail. Prisoners were released just before the giant bell crashed down on the building below.
By 3:30 Monday morning, the roof of the only pumping station had collapsed. No firefighting ability was available after that time. Ironically, the Offices of the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper which had tirelessly written about the lack of safety standards in the city, were also destroyed. Hundreds rushed away from the fire. The chaos caused families to be separated. Since the streets and sidewalks were made of wood, it seemed as if the ground was on fire. Boats on the river also caught on fire. The flames reached the city's gas supply, created a big explosion and added more fuel to the air.
In the North Division of the city, the fire destroyed all the dwellings except the home of wealthy Mahlon Ogden. The wind had shifted before reaching it. When the fire reached the side of Chicago where only prairie grass and sod existed, the fire had no more fuel, so it burned out. People from all walks of life and social backgrounds found themselves homeless along with the very wealthy families. They gathered together in two large groups northwest and south of the city.
The 'Burnt District' included more than 2000 acres. Chicago had been known as the Garden City of the West because of its beautiful flowering shrubs and trees. All the beauty was gone. 18,000 buildings were destroyed. Although about one-half of the structures had insurance, the insurance companies mainly could cover only about one-half of the value. The areas to the south and west of the town were not damaged, including the stockyards. The downtown railroad terminals were destroyed, but the lines leaving the city remained.
Joseph Medill, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, put out an edition of his paper saying, 'Chicago will rise from the ashes.' Reconstruction began immediately. By 1852, fifty million dollars was used in the rebuilding of the city. By 1885, Chicago had built America's first skyscraper.
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