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The Great Chicago Fire (8 – 10th October 1871)

Today is the anniversary of one of the worst fires in history; The Great Chicago Fire (8th – 10th October 1871).

Where did the fire start?

At the time, Chicago, Illinois was a dry and vulnerable city. On a Sunday evening, a fire broke out in a barn behind the home of Patrick and Catharine O’Leary.

The suspects

Nobody is sure how the fire started, but an accusing finger is often pointed at an O’Leary cow, which is said to have kicked over a kerosene lantern. City on fire Another theory is that the fire was caused by a spark from the chimney being blown onto hay. Chicago isn’t known as The Windy City for nothing! Others have speculated that Mrs O’Leary had maliciously started the fire after her welfare funds had been cut off. However, the farm was uninsured, so this is unlikely to be the case. Mrs O’Leary testified that she had not milked the cow that day, and that she had been asleep in bed when the fire broke out, so the exact cause could never be determined. However, following Catharine O’Leary’s death, a new suspect emerged. The most recent evidence points to “Peg Leg” Sullivan”, a neighbour who first reported the fire, who claimed to have been passing the farm. It has been discovered that a cow of his was kept in the farm, and he most likely started the fire when going to feed it.

Why the fire spread so quickly

The fire quickly spread north and east. This is unsurprising as over two thirds of the city’s constructions were wooden! This is because Chicago’s population had recently exploded, and wooden houses were quickly thrown together to accommodate the influx of European immigrants and other newcomers to the city. Even the sidewalks and roads were wooden, and the buildings were topped with flammable tar. Also, at the time of the fire, Chicago had just suffered with a drought, which caused the city to be very dry and vulnerable. On top of this, the winds were very high while the fire blazed, helping it to spread. Last, but not least, is that resources were stretched. One water station served the entire city, and there were 20 fires in the week leading up to the Chicago fire. No doubt, there the fire department was understaffed and overworked. When called, the fire service went to the wrong neighbourhood. They also struggled to fight the fire after exhausting their energies on a blaze that occurred the day before.

How was the fire extinguished?

On the most part, the fire burned itself out; when the city’s waterworks were destroyed, residents had no option but to flee what has since been described as ‘a hurricane of fire and cinders’. After two days, it eventually rained, which helped quell the fire.

The aftermath

A total of 4 square miles were destroyed by the blaze. The death toll reached 300, and around 100,000 people were left homeless. In the weeks following the fire, neighbouring cities donated resources and money. This allowed the city to recover fairly quickly, considering. The fire gave rise to many Americans questioning industrialisation, and advocating a return to simpler times. On the other end of the spectrum, many Americans began focussing on the need to improve building techniques, and improve fire safety measures. The city immediately started to rewrite its fire fighting standards, becoming one of the country’s leading fire-fighting forces. photo credit: intheburg via photopin cc

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