Chicago was one of the fastest growing cities in the 19th century. The city was densely populated and most of the buildings were constructed with wood. The summer of 1871 had been extremely dry. There had been lots of smaller fires and the firefighters were already over-worked and equipment had been damaged. Legend says that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern which started the fire.
No one knows for sure how the fire started. It could have been the cow. What is known is the fire did begin in the barn belonging to the O’Leary family. It took minutes for the fire to be out of control. The firefighters and trucks arrived too late to do anything and it was very windy. Burning embers were blown down the block which ignited another fire and so on and so on. Even buildings built of stone exploded. People had nowhere to go except in the street. Many people could be seen running with arms full of whatever belongings they could carry. For those that perished, only a third of the bodies were found. It is believed that the rest were reduced to ashes by the heat and flames.
This fire was the most destructive in American history. Three hundred people perished in the fires. Nearly 20,000 buildings were destroyed. One-third of the city was burned down, leaving 100,000 people homeless. The only thing that stopped the fire was Lake Michigan and rainfall. The fire raged until the evening of October 10.
The area of Chicago that was destroyed was over a mile wide and nearly four miles long. Almost every government building, hotels, and even the newspapers were burned up. News of the fire was reported via telegraph and soon photographers arrived to document the tragedy.
The US Army was in charge of the city and fundraising efforts were started. Other major cities sent funds as well as individuals. The city was rebuilt rather quickly. While the fire destroyed so much of Chicago, the south side lumber yards were untouched. Builders and architects from across the country came to Chicago to lend their services. Building codes and laws changed after the fire. Wood was banned in the downtown area. Bricks, marble, and tile were the sought after building materials. The Palmer House hotel was one of the first to be rebuilt and declared itself fireproof. It was after the fire that skyscrapers were built, as steel was available. Firewalls were required between buildings. The city planners created wider streets. Additional firefighters were hired and improved equipment was purchased. The devastating fire left Chicago in ruins, but as the city was coming back, the lessons learned helped other cities to enact new building codes to avoid a similar disaster.
The Great Chicago Fire was horrible but because of it, one of the most recognizable city skylines came to be.