The Great Chicago Fire Part 1

About the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, history of the disaster and destruction that supposedly started at the O'Leary farm.

THE GREAT CHICAGO FIRE

The transformation of Fort Dearborn, on the marshland near Lake Michigan, into Chicago, the Garden City of the Midwest required 68 years. A great sprawling, wooden metropolis, the city was a ready victim in the fall of 1871. It had been a hot dry summer and in the 1st week of October there were 24 fires. Approximately 300,000 people were mopping their brows wondering when the next alarm would sound. The fire that became the holocaust of the century started in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O'Leary at 137 De Koven Street, and spread out of control to turn the largest city west of Pittsburgh into a sea of glowing ashes.

When: At 8:30 on Sunday evening, October 8, 1871.

Where: Chicago, Ill.

The Loss: 300 deaths; 17,500 buildings destroyed; 100,000 Chicagoans left homeless. Property damage of $400 million.

The Cause: With the exception of metal and stone adornments, Chicago was built entirely of wood. Five-story-high grain elevators, 4-story hotels, business buildings, homes, bridges, and raised sidewalks were all made of wood. Many of her streets were paved with pine blocks. A leading industrial city, Chicago manufactured, stored, bought, and sold inflammable goods. Almost every home had some kind of a barn that served as housing for livestock, and provided storage for wagons, sawdust and kindling for wood stoves, and coal for furnaces.

Compared with other cities in 1871, Chicago had a modern fire-alarm system: 17 horse-drawn steam fire engines, 23 hose carts, 4 hook-and-ladder wagons, 2 hose elevators, and 185 well-paid active firemen to protect 18 sq. mi. In 1870, this system had dealt successfully with 600 fires. But by Sunday, the 8th of October, Chicago firemen were tired. They had extinguished 24 fires the previous week. Two engines were in the repair shop and several of the 15 remaining engines needed maintenance work. Canvas hoses were badly worn and many were leaking. Adding to all this, a brisk wind came up off the lake early Sunday morning.

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