On This Day

chicago fire, great chicago fire
Associated Press
An artist's conception shows people fleeing the downtown area of the city during the Chicago fire on Oct. 8, 1871.

On This Day: Five Major Fires, Including the Great Chicago Fire, Break Out

October 08, 2011 06:00 AM
by Jennifer Ferris
On Oct. 8, 1871, fires started in five cities along Lake Michigan’s coast. Within two days, thousands were dead and miles of city blocks and rural lands were razed.

The Great Conflagration

The summer and early fall of 1871 were extraordinarily dry in the Midwestern states of Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan; by some accounts, only half an inch of rain had fallen since June.

Every day, there were multiple small fires in almost every county. In Chicago, there were at least two fires a day, and there were 20 during the second week of October alone. People were so used to the burning and the smell of smoke that few seemed to notice it anymore.

On the night of Oct. 8, 1871, a warm wind began to blow from the southwest and feed the small omnipresent fires near Peshtigo, Wis. Suddenly, a great rumbling was heard through the small town. Residents ran to the streets and spotted a horizon so bright and red it could mean only one thing.

As the winds picked up, the fire began to roar through the streets, charring homes and turning all to soot. A fire tornado, spawned by a great cyclonic front sitting over the Midwest, increased the destruction, spinning through the burning streets and yanking roofs off buildings.

Embers from Peshtigo spread across Green Bay, and traveled north toward Michigan. Manistee, Port Huron and Holland, Mich., were also burned, and by the time it sputtered out, the fire had claimed 1,875 square miles.

Meanwhile, more than 250 miles away in Chicago, another great fire ignited. Popular legend tells that a cow in Catherine and Patrick O’Leary’s barn kicked over a gas lantern, igniting the blaze around 9 p.m. on Oct. 8. While historians have no doubt that a fire started in that barn, no one knows if it was the single source for the blaze that quickly moved through the downtown Chicago streets.

The same southwestern wind that fed the Wisconsin and Michigan fires helped spread the Chicago flames through office buildings and residences in the central part of town. Exhausted from the week of fending off smaller infernos, the Chicago fire department did not adequately respond. Everything in Chicago—bridges, homes, sidewalks and buildings—was made of wood. Residents ran for their lives as the city burned.

Aftermath of the Fires

In Chicago, four square miles of downtown development was completely devoured by the fire. Although only 200 died, 90,000 were left homeless; 70,000 buildings were completely destroyed, along with 73 miles of roadway.

Newspaper headlines were dominated by stories from Chicago and it took quite some time before people realized that the Peshtigo fire not only burned concurrently, but also took more lives. An actual count of victims is impossible, but most historians calculate between 1,200 and 2,400 people lost their lives to the flames which barreled along the shores of Green Bay.

At the time, it was the greatest loss of life due to a natural disaster on American soil. The Peshtigo fire remains the deadliest fire in recorded United States history.

What Caused the Fires?

Since the ashes settled, people have been trying to determine the causes of these deadly fires. In addition to the drought and proliferation of wooden buildings, many other theories have evolved.

The famous theory of O’Leary’s cow has since been debunked. However, some believe players of a craps game or a milk thief may have knocked over the lantern which sparked that blaze.

Others have looked to science, saying the coincidence of two such great fires happening in one evening is too much to believe. Some think Biela’s Comet, which was passing over the Northern Hemisphere at the time, could have dropped balls of methane, which ignited the flames. This theory has been disputed by many, who claim the meteorites which fall to earth are not warm enough to set fires.

Rebuilding Chicago

Chicago got right to work rebuilding, designing skyscrapers to replace the small wooden buildings that had been lost. By 1893, 22 years later, the city hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition (aka the Chicago World’s Fair), and was acclaimed worldwide for its quick rebirth.

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