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The Chicago Fire of 1871

The summer of 1871 had been an unusually dry one in Chicago. Between
July and October, only 5 inches of rain fell. In addition to twenty-seven
fires in the first week of October, on Saturday night, October 7, a blaze broke
out in a planning mill on the West Side and destroyed almost every building in a
four block area before it was brought under control Sunday morning. They lost a
hose and other fire-fighting equipment, including one of seventeen steam fire
engines and a hose cart. Nearly half of Chicago's 185 firemen fought this fire
and many were on duty all day, so they were already exhausted when the Great
Chicago Fire of 1871 struck.
Some people think that the fire was started by Mrs. O'leary's cow
kicking over a lantern. Others have different theories, but one thing is for
sure,on the Sunday evening of October 8, 1871 a blaze started in Mrs. O' leary's
barn. Daniel sullivan sat on the wooden sidewalk when he saw a flame in Mrs.
O'leary's barn. He managed to save a half grown calf. By now everyone in the
neighborhood woke up, including the sleeping O'learys. The "America" hose cart
was the first to reach the scene. They were soon joined by the "Little Giant"
engine company. A neighbor ran to a drug store to turn on an alarm but the
alarm failed to work. The court house watchman had given wrong directions but
later tried to correct his mistake, but the alarm operator was eating dinner
so she refused to correct the mistake. The fire engines went about 1 mile
south of where the fire was. By the time the problem was resolved ,a number of
hose carts and fire engines were fighting to keep this fire under control, but
the wind had spread bits of buring debris. Several homes, one block north, had
caught on fire. The flames were so intense that one fireman's hat was warped
and his clothing was smoking.

The fire spread swiftly through Chicago. Frantic householders and
businessmen whose building were in the probable path of the fire, piled all
their possessions in to the street. Both the west and south side were cover in
a blanket of smoke. As Thomas Byrne of Hose Elevator No.2 said,"you couldn't
see anything over you but fire....No clouds, no stars, nothing but fire." The
north side started in flames on Monday. As people fled east to the lake, odd
things were saved, such examples are: a rooster, a fire place mantle, a pack of
playing cards, a stovepipe, an empty box, a feather duster, and a wooden Indian.
Shortly before the court house burned down 100 prisoners were released. Most of
the prisoners began looting. When the Water Works was hit by the fire, many of
the firemen went home. Finally around 11P.M. the wind died down and showers
began falling. The fire was over, even though many piles of wood remained
90,000 people were left homeless and 300 people died. 2124 acres were
destroyed in the raging inferno, a total of $200,000,000 in property loss.
After a huge fire like this you would expect for it to take a long time to
rebuild, but with in a month, 4,000 new buildings were put up.


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Besides the fact that the Great Chicago Fire started around nine o'clock on Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, somewhere in or very near the O'Leary barn, the exact particulars of its origin are unknown. But given the dry summer and the heedless way the city had been built and managed in regard to its vulnerability to fire, a kick from a cow would have been sufficient but by no means necessary to burn Chicago down. As A. T. Andreas, the city's leading nineteenth-century historian, put it, "Nature had withheld her accustomed measure of prevention, and man had added to the peril by recklessness."

Fires were a common occurrence in Chicago, and there were several in the week before the fire. The largest of these by far began on Saturday night.  And firemen might have been able to contain the great conflagration that began the following evening but for a series of technological and human failures in the alarm system. The fire, driven by a strong wind out of the southwest, took dead aim on the center of the city. It divided unpredictably into separate parts by hurling out flaming brands on the superheated draft it generated, leaping the South Branch of the Chicago River. Dividing yet again, it made short work of Conley's Patch. By 1:30 it reached the Court House tower, from which the watchman barely escaped. When city officials realized that the building was doomed, they released the prisoners from the basement jail just before the great Court House bell, which had been sounding the alarm, plummeted through the collapsing tower.

As thousands fled to the North Division, the fire pursued them. By 3:30 a.m., the roof collapsed on the Pumping Station at Chicago Avenue, effectively rendering any firefighting efforts hopeless. By noon on Monday the North Division fires had reached North Avenue and then continued the better part of a mile to Fullerton Avenue.  Back in the South Division, the luxurious new Palmer House gave way, along with the offices of the Chicago Tribune, whose editors had exhorted the Common Council to raise the level of fire protection or face disaster.  Tuesday morning a rain began to fall, and the flames finally died out, leaving Chicago a smoking, steaming ruin.

As the fire expanded and advanced, the mood of the population shifted from interest and concern to alarm and panic. Many heard the Court House bell and saw the red and amber flames in the distance but thought little of what was they believed was a commonplace but containable hazard.  Individuals who worked in downtown buildings that were supposed to be "fireproof," like the one that housed the Tribune, and people understandably attracted by the spectacle, walked to positions from which they could monitor the fire's progress. Before long, however, they realized that there was no place of guaranteed safety. Fascinated as well as fearful, people alternately--even simultaneously--tried to get the best vantage and flee for their lives with what little they could salvage, creating havoc in the streets and wild crowding on the bridges crossing the river. Husbands and wives, parents and children, were separated. It seemed as if the ground was itself on fire--which in fact it was, since the streets, sidewalks, and bridges were made of wood. Even the river seemed vulnerable, as several vessels and grease along the water's surface ignited.

Later there were reports of Chicagoans trapped or crushed in their homes, on one of the bridges, or in the Washington and LaSalle Street tunnels, the latter of which had just opened on Independence Day. Along with the stories of narrow escapes, heroic rescues, and selfless mutual assistance, there were also tales--no doubt exaggerated but with some basis in fact--of looting and drunkenness, as well as of outrageous demands and outright thievery by those who had been hired to cart goods to safety. "'Pay as you go' had become the watchword of the hour," recalled one of the refugees. "Never was there a community so hastily and completely emancipated from the evils of the credit system."

The burned-out gathered in dazed and dispirited groups on open stretches of prairie west and northwest of the city, in the South Division along Lake Michigan, in the North Division's Lincoln Park, and along "the Sands," a patch of lakeshore just north of the Main Branch of the Chicago River. In such places of refuge, Chicagoans who heretofore had little contact with each other were unceremoniously forced together. As a fire history put it, one could find "Mr. McCormick, the millionaire of the reaper trade, and other north-side nabobs, herding promiscuously with the humblest laborer, the lowest vagabond, and the meanest harlot." Once they settled themselves, there was little they could do but bear witness to this calamity beyond comprehension.

It was like a snowstorm only the flakes were red instead of white.

Fire Narrative of Bessie Bradwell Helmer

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