Currier & Ives lithograph of Chicago’s great fire, 1871. (Library of Congress)

The Great Fire: Chicago 1871

From our print archive: Herman Kogan, AB’36, retells the story of the famous conflagration that destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles of the city and left more than 100,000 residents homeless.

On the Saturday evening of October 7, 1871, a man named George Francis Train stood on the stage of Chicago’s Farwell Hall and, in the midst of his speech, made a statement that added to his fame as an author, world traveler, and lecturer an extra dimension of uncanny prophecy: “This,” he said, “is the last public address that will be delivered within these walls! A terrible calamity is impending over the city of Chicago! More I cannot say! More I dare not utter!”

No one in that hall at Madison and Clark had any clear idea of why he said what he did or on what he based his words, but in little more than twenty-four hours after the audience trooped into the streets events were under way that would prove him a remarkable seer.

Indeed, on the very night Train spoke, it seemed that he might be a day early in his prediction. Out in the West division of the city, fire broke out in a planing mill and it was so fierce that it devoured nearly every building in a four-block area, caused at least one death and many injuries, and engaged nearly half of the city’s 185 weary firemen. In its story about that fire, the Chicago Tribune noted that the summer had been an unusually dry one, with very little rain, and that in the first week of October there had been no fewer than twenty-seven fires—and it sounded a warning almost as chilling and ominous as Train’s: “Everything is in so dry and inflammable a condition that a spark might set a fire which could sweep from end to end of the city.”

On the very next night—the fateful night of October 8—such a spark did set such a fire.

Whatever the specific cause, it began in the barn behind the home of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary on De Koven Street, near Halsted and what is now Roosevelt Road. In the next thirty horrifying hours, it spread with incredible swiftness toward the north, east, and west.

It destroyed four square miles of the tumultuous city, including its central business district and governmental buildings, slum areas and neighborhoods of the wealthy, mansions and hovels, theaters, churches, sporting houses, and railroad depots—much, much more for a loss of nearly $200 million in property. It was a fire in which there were 120 known dead and as many or more forever missing, and which left 100,000 homeless; a fire which brought out the noblest in men and the basest and which would forever provoke mysteries and unanswered questions that still create disagreement and controversy.

One such controversy still revolves around the question: Did Catherine O’Leary’s cow really start the fire? Did she indeed kick over a lamp that set afire dry hay stored in the barn? In the hours just after the big blaze began, there seemed to be little doubt that this was precisely what happened. In fact, Mrs. O’Leary herself, according to contemporary records cited in a monumental and detailed monograph about the Great Fire by Howard A. Musham in 1941, admitted as much.

The first person she told the story to seems to have been a Robert Critchell, an insurance man who questioned Mrs. O’Leary and reported that she told him—“in a rather ungracious way,” he later wrote in a memoir, Recollections of an Insurance Man—that the initial accounts were true, that she had gone into the barn to get milk for milk punch, and that the cow, in a moment of irritation, had kicked over the lamp.

Another contemporary witness was Jacob Schaller, a youth who worked for the O’Learys delivering milk to the neighborhood. Schaller related that on the Sunday of October 8 he had done his chores, bringing the usual fifteen pints to customers. On the next morning, with the city aflame, he spoke with Mrs. O’Leary. She told him she was distressed because she was sure her cow had perished. She placed her arms around the boy and when he asked how the fire started, she told him that she had company and needed milk for Tom and Jerrys. Because the day’s supply had been sold, she went to the barn and sat down to milk the cow. She had gotten about half a pint when the cow, obviously resentful at being milked a second time that day, raised up her right hind leg and gave a light kick which hit the lantern and knocked it over and set fire to the barn.

Another account had Mrs. O’Leary saying she went to the barn to look after an ailing cow. She put feed into the bin. The cow became skittish, kicked over the lamp by accident, it exploded and set fire to hay and barn. Yet another had Mrs. O'Leary sitting on the front steps of her own house the second day of the fire—the house, ironically, was never touched by flames-rocking and moaning, “My poor cow, my poor cow. She is gone and I have nothing left in the whole world.” What she told then was that she was in the barn to check on her sick cow and while she was returning to her cottage for some salt the cow kicked over the lantern she had set down nearby.

As the hours of disaster continued, and as the wide extent of the damage became apparent, Mrs. O’Leary did little talking—indeed, remained silent until official inquiries in November. And by that time she virtually denied everything she had said earlier. One can hardly blame her, considering the fire’s ruin and devastation. Nor can anyone blame her many descendants over these one hundred years for denying—usually to newspaper reporters at least once every decade—that she or the cow had any­thing to do with the fire.

Other theories of the fire’s origin have persistently been put forward. The old Chicago Times published by Wilbur Fisk Storey—the “father of yellow journalism” and more than a little demented—ran a front-page story in the weeks after the fire alleging that agents of the Paris Commune had been dispatched to set the city ablaze. Others—especially one of the more notable O’Leary offspring, “Big Jim” O’Leary, a multimillionaire gambling boss on the city’s South Side by the time he died in the mid–1920s—insisted the cause was spontaneous combustion. Still others claimed that small boys had been smoking in the hayloft or that one or the other of the O’Leary neighbors had come sneaking into the barn looking for milk for punch or for whiskey and had dropped a lantern. Varied groups, from the Ku Klux Klan to Indians, have been accused of conspiring to touch off the holocaust; that amazing George Francis Train, tracked down in Denver several days after the fire and asked if he had based his prophecy on knowledge of a specific plot, alleged he knew of none and that he had inserted the statement about the dire fate that awaited the city strictly for dramatic effect because Chicago had a wicked reputation and anything that calamitous would be no surprise. (In this centennial year, Chicago’s fire commissioner, Robert Quinn, received a strongly­ worded letter from one who identified herself as a Women’s Liberationist calling on him, once and for all, to smash the “libelous charge” that anyone female—Mrs. O’Leary or her cow—had anything to do with starting the blaze. It was quite evident, the lady insisted, that that horrid male chauvinist, Patrick O’Leary, had thrown a lighted cigar butt into a stack of hay in the barn. Quinn set his researchers to work and ultimately replied to the letter-writer that although many causes had been cited over the years, the least likely was the Patrick-O’Leary­-cigar-butt theory.)

In retrospect and from this historical perspective, it is really not important, intriguing as the mystery evidently continues to be, to determine the specific cause. For the tragic irony is that however the fire started, it could very easily have been stopped, early except for some errors, the most perplexing of which in­volved the sounding of the alarm.

The fire, according to the best authorities, started between 8:30 and 8:45 p.m. One of the O’Learys’ neighbors turned in an alarm from a nearby box, but according to later testimony the apparatus was faulty and the alarm did not register at the Courthouse at Clark and Randolph. Meanwhile, from the Courthouse tower, the man on fire watch there, Matt Schaeffer, spotted smoke and flame and called down the tube to William Brown in the fire office to sound the alarm for a fire company to proceed to the fire. The horrid error was that Schaeffer gave Brown the wrong location, summoning a company a mile away instead of one that was only three blocks from the O’Leary barn. A few minutes later Schaeffer realized his mistake and directed Brown to sound the right box. But for reasons never explained, Brown stubbornly and stupidly refused and again sounded the wrong alarm. By 9:21 p.m. the flames had advanced beyond the O’Leary barn to sheds, barns, and wooden houses. The watchman of the nearby Little Giant Company saw them and roused the men, who hurried to the scene. It was almost forty-five minutes after the fire began that these first firemen got there—an obviously fatal delay.

Once started, the fire grew fiercer and fiercer. The firemen were valiant, they were brave; but in most cases their efforts were futile. Equipment broke down, hoses burst, the water supply was lower than usual because so much had been used in fighting the West Side fire the night before.

Moreover, vicious kinds of winds whipped the flames—they were called “fire devils,” made of self-generating whirls of flame and heated air—and they were forceful enough to send brands and sparks and masses of flame forward in a single stretch for half a mile.

Neighborhood after neighborhood fell, building after building—Conley’s Patch as well as Terrace Row, such mighty and magnificent establishments as the new Palmer House, the Tremont Hotel, the Grand Pacific, Crosby's Opera House, the Sherman House. By 1:30 in the morning on the second day of the fire, the Courthouse itself, standing where now the present City Hall and County Building stand, was ablaze, and within half an hour, its bell still clanging, down came its tower and much of the famous structure.

Many believed that the main branch of the Chicago River would be a natural barrier to the fire’s northward march, but that hope was in vain. The first brands carried by the fire devils did comparatively little damage. But then several hit a kerosene tank railroad car on tracks near the present site of the Wrigley Building. After an explosive burst, other buildings caught fire, more firestorms were generated and the flames swept northward.

On every street leading toward the main branch of the river and to the “blessed lake shore” surged the people. There were crazed men and brave ones, noble ones and craven ones. On Lake Street, still the street of merchants, and along Randolph Street, whose bridge, still intact and whole, offered egress to parts as yet untouched by the blaze, the press of men, women, and children was suffocatingly close. They carried boxes and packages, bundles, babies, housewares, toys, picture frames, chairs. They crashed through fences and ripped down awnings. Some yelled, and some plodded along silently. Some pushed their way down the street and some were shoved and trampled. And here and there someone, eyes glazed and face streaked with smoke grime, cried out, “Chicago is doomed! God has punished us all!” On other streets leading away from the center of the fire were men with coaches, omnibuses, and wagons. They offered to carry anyone who could pay—$150 was the asking price—toward the lake shore or over the river bridges to the city limits beyond Lincoln Park; some of these men were honest, but some were scoundrels, ready in an instant to dump their passengers if others offered more money.

There was looting. Even while flames streaked through department stores on State and on Wabash, vandals broke in and left with bolts of cloth, suits, silks, dresses. A block from Field, Leiter and Company, where Marshall Field and his associates had fought in vain to save their “marble palace,” men and women stomped along the streets through stacks of oil paintings, books, musical instruments, mirrors, glassware. From the windows of dry-goods stores thieves hurled silks and fabrics to accomplices on the crackling sidewalks. Mayor Roswell Mason had already issued the first of many emergency proclamations, ordering all saloons to close; there was little need for such precautions now, for already many of the drinking places in the burning sections had been invaded by looters who smashed bottles and guzzled liquor and overturned whiskey barrels. Not only stores but private homes were broken into; on Michigan Avenue’s fashionable Terrace Row, William “Deacon” Bross, Illinois’ former lieutenant-governor, came upon a rascal fleeing from his half-demolished house and wearing half-a-dozen of his suits. Beetle-browed Bross made only a perfunctory move to stop the thief, saying, “Well, go along, you might as well have them as let them burn.” Down State Street’s cobblestones staggered a woman, her scrawny arms laden with stolen dresses and finery, and over and over again she shrilled, “Chickey chickey craney crow! I went to the well to wash my toe!” And at the foot of the Clark Street bridge sprawled a boy, dead beneath a marble slab; on his hands were two white kid gloves and in his pockets were stuffed dozens of gold-plated sleeve buttons.

Finally, almost as if of its own choosing, almost as if weary of having spent all its awesome fury, the Great Fire began to subside. By late afternoon of October 9, it started to taper off and then rain—“merciful rain” someone called it—started to fall in the evening. And in the early hours of Tuesday, October 10, despite sporadic spurts of fire here and there, it was over. On that Tuesday morning, Chicago stared bleakly at the devastation.

From outside the city came laments from the sympathetic and cruel cries of exultation from civic rivals. In a poem epitomizing the grief and pessimism, John Greenleaf Whittier droned “Men clasped each other’s hands and said, ‘The city of the West is dead!’’ A New Orleans newspaper predicted: “Chicago will be like the Carthage of old! Its glory will be of the past, not of the present, while its hopes, once so bright and cloudless, will be to the end marred and blackened by the smoke of its fiery fate.” And a Reverend Granville Moody of Cincinnati expressed senti­ments echoed by moralists everywhere: “It is retributive judgment on a city that has shown such devotion in its worship of the golden calf.”

Yet even before the flames had mercifully burned themselves out and wisps of smoke and the acrid smell of smoke filtered through the devastated city, there were counter-cries of optimism.

John Stephen Wright, publisher, historian, civic zealot, was asked by an associate amid ruins at Wabash and Congress: “Well, Wright, what do you think now of the future of Chicago?” Wright’s reply: “I will tell you what it is. Chicago will have more men, more money, more business within five years than she would have had without the fire.” And his friend walked off, muttering that Wright had gone mad.

Joseph Medill issued his call to recovery with a front-page editorial in his Tribune: “Cheer up! In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world’s history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that Chicago shall rise again!”

George Frederick Root, who had already composed two songs about the holocaust—“Lost and Saved!” and “Passing Through the Fire!”—now dashed off another that teemed with hope and concluded: “Out city shall rise! Yes, she shall rise! Queen of the West once more!

Deacon Bross was prime among the city’s boomers and boosters. He sped to the East Coast to give dramatic interviews and to persuade bankers, financiers, and industrialists to extend liberal credit terms. To audiences, wherever he found them, he called out, “Go to Chicago now! Young men, hurry there! Old men, send your sons! Women, send your husbands! You will never again have such a chance to make money!” The Great Fire had leveled social and economic distinctions, had made everyone equal in a renewed race for riches. “Now is the time to strike! A delay of a year or two will give an immense advantage to those who start at once.” Despite the destruction of his own home and the theft of much of his property from the burning dwelling, he was buoyant about the city’s future: “I tell you that within five years Chicago’s business houses will be rebuilt, and by 1900 the new Chicago will boast a population of a million souls. You ask me why? Because I know the Northwest and the vast resources of the broad acres. I know that the location of Chicago makes her the center of this wealthy region and the market for all its products. What Chicago has been in the past, she must become in the future—and a hundredfold more. She has only to wait a few short years for the sure development of her manifest destiny!”

The Reverend Robert Collyer, in his sermon the first Sunday after the fire, struck a similar theme to his flock outside Unity Church: “We have not lost, first, our geography. Nature called the lakes, the forests, the prairies together in convention long before we were born, and they decided that on this spot a great city should be built!”

Henry Greenebaum, a pioneer banker, sent letters to Eastern and European investment bankers in which Chicago’s position as the focal point of the nation’s commerce was emphasized and which stressed opportunities for profitable investments in a city that, despite all its recent misfortune, had prospects for recovery as swift as its growth had been in the decade before the Great Fire.

Two fellows known only as Shock and Bigford became officially the first merchants to set up shop in the burned sector with an old mahogany sideboard on Dearborn Street across from the destroyed Post Office where they sold, at what they advertised as “old prices,” cigars, tobacco, grapes, apples, and cider.

William D. Kerfoot gathered friends and colleagues on that very Monday while parts of the city were still ablaze and clapped together on Washington, between Dearborn and Clark, a wooden shanty he called “Kerfoot’s Block” and whose crudely lettered sign above the entrance seemed to typify the tone of resurgence: “W. D. Kerfoot. All Gone but Wife, Children, and Energy.”

There were massive relief measures, public and private. The Chicago Relief and Aid Society—forerunner of United Charities—distributed food and clothing. A week after the fire was over there were over five thousand temporary structures of wood, mostly two-room frame cottages equipped with bedding, stoves, and coal. Some two hundred permanent buildings were already under way.

Funds came from a variety of sources. Eastern bankers did extend considerable credit. The Illinois legislature appropriated $3 million, primarily for restoration of bridges and viaducts. Even persistent trade rivals aided: St. Louis sent clothing and supplies and cash amounting to $500,000, and Cincinnati not only established free soup kitchens on the West Side where 3,500 refugees’ were fed daily through the rest of the year but also sent $160,000 for varied purposes. In all, some $5 million was contributed in the months following the Great Fire, one­-fifth of that amount from twenty-nine foreign countries.

Major merchants were especially busy, led by Marshall Field and Levi Z. Leiter, whose splendid establishment at State and Washington, which they had rented from Potter Palmer for $50,000 a year, had been utterly destroyed. They set up temporary quarters in a horse-car barn at State and Twentieth and set in motion plans for a new wholesale building at Madison and Market, completed within one hundred days, and a new retail store on the previous site.

Banks and commercial houses recovered in short order. Within forty-eight hours after the fire’s end, twelve of the twenty-nine burned-out banks has established makeshift quarters. Before the week was out these were ready to pay depositors 15 percent. And in four days more, all stood prepared to make unconditional payments.

A month after the Great Fire, Joseph Medill was elected mayor on the Union-Fireproof ticket and in his inaugural address he vowed action that would make another such catastrophe impossible. Ordinances were passed calling for greater use of such fire-resistant materials as brick, stone, and iron, an improved water supply system, a larger fire-fighting force, limits on frame structures, prohibitions against false wooden fronts.

But as building continued at a feverish rate many of these ordinances were deviously defied. Many contractors sidestepped technicalities, advertised all-brick “fireproof” buildings that were mainly of wood except for exterior walls of stone. Hardly any action was taken against such transgressors because the need for housing was so intense and the city lacked sufficiently trained inspectors to root out the ordinance violators. Medill warned frequently of the possibility of another tragedy, and sought valiantly but in vain to punish major wrongdoers. His words were rarely heeded and construction—bad, mediocre, and good—continued swiftly. “There are no ruins left,” exulted the Times early in 1872, “save an arch in Dearborn Street standing like that of Titus in Rome.” That summer, a British visitor noted, “Every hour of every working day there is built a brick, stone, or iron warehouse.”

He might well have said the same of office buildings, theaters, cottages, and hotels. In the case of the four biggest hotels, the Sherman, the Tremont, and the Grand Pacific all were up again early in 1873, and the grandest—the Palmer House, in 1875—was considered by most a virtual masterpiece among the world’s hotels, with large rooms, an assortment of dining rooms, a barbershop in whose floor were imbedded silver dollars. A minority report was that of Rudyard Kipling who not only disliked the city (“inhabited by savages”) but described the Palmer House as “a gilded and mirrored rabbit warren” whose ornate lobby was “crammed with people talking about money and spitting about everything.”

Before the Great Fire, Chicago had no free libraries. But now an abandoned water tank at La Salle and Adams was set up as the city’s first free tax-supported library with some seven thousand books mainly from Great Britain where Thomas B. Hughes led a campaign in which Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Disraeli, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Charles Kingsley participated. The library opened officially on New Year’s Day, 1873, and remained there until 1897, when the present structure went up. Around this same water tank was built a two-story building that served as a temporary city hall until 1885. It came to be called “The Rookery,” because it attracted pigeons, a name retained by the imposing office building that later went up on the site and stands yet as one of the city’s notable surviving architectural landmarks.

On the first anniversary of the Great Fire, hundreds of new buildings were up. Most of the streets had been repaved and there were patches of park and stretches of saplings along some streets. Real estate values, of course, soared, especially in the business area, and old fortunes were revitalized and some new ones created. “This is a peerless metropolis,” later wrote an ebullient Lakeside Monthly essayist, “that has proved itself such in its indomitability of spirit, in its solidity of structure, in its development of a sleepless vitality, an unaltering faith and an irrepressible progressive impulse.”

The amazing resurgence was not without its less laudable aspects. By October, 1872, there was one saloon for every 150 inhabitants—and there were dives of all low kinds, brothels and gambling houses in districts called “The Levee,” “Little Cheyenne,” “Satan’s Mile,” “Hell’s Half-Acre,” and “Dead Man’s Alley.” And on the night of July 14, 1874, a fire started not far from where the Great Fire had begun. It swept north and east over a shoddy slum area and licked at the business district. Only a lack of winds as fierce as those stirred in the fire of 1871 kept the city from undergoing the same—or worse—fate. As it was, the damage came to $4 million.

But even this blaze, like the Great Fire, yielded positive results. A generation of bright young architects was inspired to thoughts about the use of iron and steel supports and of innovative construction methods. Many were made aware of the end of one architectural epoch and the start of another. The fires of 1871 and 1874, a writer in Industrial Chicago aptly put it, “were fortunate events for the Garden City as a whole, and none profited directly by them so much as art and architects, for the flames swept away forever the greater number of monstrous libels on artistic house-building, while destroying the few noble buildings of which old Chicago could boast.”

There were still more than a few “monstrous libels on artistic house-building” in the post-fire city—especially some mansions of the very rich that aped European styles at their worst. But the imaginations of youthful architects were stimulated, and among forerunners and later participants in the years that came to be known as Chicago’s “golden era” of architecture was William LeBaron Jenney, whose Portland Block in 1872 at Dearborn and Washington and Leiter Building at Wells and Monroe in 1879 embodied new structural principles that would come to fruition in his famous ten-story Home Insurance Building, America’s first skyscraper. In 1879, too, Dankmar Adler, a rabbi’s son, completed the Central Music Hall at State and Randolph and took on a new associate named Louis Henri Sullivan, and together they prepared to step into that decade of immense creativity along with such fledgling architects as Daniel Burnham, John Wellborn Root, and William Holabird, all ready to add their concepts to the creative decade of the 1880s.

No account of the decade after the holocaust can be authentic without recording that certain important elements of the city were not destroyed and that, for all the horrors and ruins, Chicago remained in a strategic position in a section of the country that was on the verge of intense expansion.

Chicago was still in a vital location, directly on the line of the great national highway between the two oceans that bounded the country on the east and west. Three-fourths of its grain stores had been unaffected by the blaze, and 8o percent of its lumberyards, some six hundred factories, rolling mills, and machine shops lay outside the burned neighborhoods. Railroad depots had been wholly or partially destroyed, but eighteen trunk lines with direct connections to thousands of miles of track were almost all intact, along with twenty miles of Lake Michigan dockage. And a prime asset, the Union Stockyards, had not been touched by so much as a tiny flaming ember and continued to thrive and grow busier and busier.

And if 40,000 of the pre-fire population of 334,000 fled the city in the days after the Great Fire, thousands came to replace them—and thousands more, for news of the calamity and the way in which the city had rebounded from it had spread to many lands. By 1881, 503,185 people were living in Chicago, and by 1890 its population would be 1,099,850—beating Deacon Bross’ estimate by ten years—and of these, 41 percent would be foreign immigrants, mainly from Germany, Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, and Great Britain.

So the Great Fire was followed by the Great Recovery. The decade was frenetic and busy and thriving and fruitful. The predictions of the boosters and the boomers were more than amply fulfilled. Visitors of high and low degree came from all over the world. Some deplored Chicago’s lusty ways, its excesses of style, its definite aggressiveness. But few could find fault with the evidence of resurgence from what was then considered a disaster of massive proportions. Most who came as skeptics left as confirmed believers. And by the decade's end, a British novelist and journalist, Lady Duffus Hardy, spoke what was in the minds of many. She wrote: “We expected to find traces of ugliness and deformity everywhere, crippled buildings and lame, limping streets running along in a forlorn, crooked condition, waiting for time to restore their vigor and build up their beauty anew. But Phoenixlike the city has risen out of its own ashes, grander and statelier than ever.”  

This article was adapted from a speech during Chicagoʼs recent Fire Centennial Week by the author, ABʼ36, a Chicago newspaperman for over thirty-five years and a lifetime Chicago buff. Now editor of the Chicago Sun-Times Showcase magazine, he has written many books including the recently published (with Robert Cromie) The Great Fire: Chicago 1871 (G. P. Putnam's Sons).