1871-The Great Chicago Fire is finally extinguished

October 10, 2022

It was a brutally hot day in October 1871 as a heat wave engulfed the Midwest. Only a fraction of normal rainfall fell that summer, resulting in dry wooden buildings and sidewalks throughout the city. Nobody knows when or how, but a fire reportedly started in the evening in a barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O'Leary. A few days later, the fire was finally put out, aided, ironically, by autumn rains. As people started surveying the damage, it was clear a large part of downtown Chicago had been reduced to smoldering ash.


The Great Chicago Fire of October 10, 1871, caused about $222 million, worth more than $3 billion in today's dollars. An area four miles long by one mile wide had burned to the ground, displacing about 90,000 people who lost everything when their homes and businesses were razed.

An estimated 300 people died, though 180 bodies were never found. The fire involved over 70 miles of streets lined by 17,500 buildings, all made of brittle dried wood ready for burning.

How it Started

In the more than 140 years since the Great Chicago Fire reshaped parts of downtown, how and when the fire started remains a mystery. The story about O'Leary's cow kicking over a lantern was only a suggestion by a Chicago newspaper to hype the event to sell newspapers. Another theory claims someone kicked over the lantern as they tried to get away from an illegal card game. Some have claimed the fire started from a meteor strike. Some of these theories are more logical than others. However, the mystery adds to the folklore.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.