Answers to Burning Questions About the Great Chicago Fire

The Chicago History Museum tackles the event that shaped the city.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is the most famous fire in American history. It began 150 years ago on the evening of Oct. 8 and burned until the morning of Oct. 10.  The event was devastating, causing the destruction of about 18,000 buildings — a third of Chicago — and led to 300 lives lost and nearly 100,000 Chicagoans left homeless.  

“The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was a pivotal event in the city’s history, setting it on a path of unmatched resilience and constant evolution that still defines Chicago today,” says Julius L. Jones, curator of the Chicago History Museum’s exhibition City on Fire: Chicago 1871.

There is a lot of misinformation about what caused the Great Chicago Fire and debate about whether it could have been prevented. With help from the experts at the Chicago History Museum, we’ve collected the answers to everyone’s burning questions about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

What is the popular myth about who started the Great Chicago Fire?

The blame is put on Mrs. O’Leary and her cow for kicking over a lantern. While Mrs. O’Leary was blamed for many years, that story is not true. Mrs. O’Leary was asleep when the fire broke out in her barn.

What caused the Great Chicago fire?

To this day, we don’t know how the fire began. However, we do know it started in the O’Leary barn. Unfortunately, the fire fighters were accidentally sent to the site of a fire from the night before, as they thought it started up again. When they finally made it to the O’Leary barn, the fire was already burning out of control.

What happened during the fire?

The fire moved fast, through the wooden homes and barns, and was helped along by a strong wind. The fire jumped through the south branch of the Chicago River. It moved through downtown, burning hotels, stores, banks and even the courthouse. The fire jumped the main branch of the river, and burned the waterworks building, which housed the machines that pumped water. When the waterworks burned, fire fighters no longer had water in their hoses. The fire kept going, destroying North Side neighborhoods. As the fire burned, thousands of Chicagoans ran out of its path. The fire burned all day, and through the night of Monday, Oct. 9, finally dying out early the next morning on Oct. 10 when it began to rain.

What are some factors that contributed to the fire?

In the summer and fall of 1871, Chicago had a long period of hot, dry weather. Plus, because wood was cheap and easy to build with, many houses, streets and sidewalks were made of wood. In addition to the many wooden buildings, businesses used coal, a type of rock that is found underground and can be burned for power and heating. People used kerosene, a kind of oil and lanterns for light. All of this created a high risk for fire.

What can we learn from the Great Chicago Fire?

Recovery efforts for the fire exposed deep social and economic inequities as more than 100,000 people became homeless, and society placed blame upon Mrs. O’Leary largely because she was an Irish immigrant. 150 years later, City on Fire: Chicago 1871 draws striking parallels to today’s social landscape, teaching us that we still have to work toward inclusivity in our city and beyond.

For more information on the Great Chicago Fire, visit chicagohistory.org.

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