Chicago Before the Fire
The city of Chicago, Illinois existed because of its location on the edge of Lake Michigan, nearly in the center of the North American continent. Ships would arrive there carrying goods from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, and railroads criss-crossing the continent relied on Chicago as their hub. Goods moved from the East Coast to the West Coast or south along the Mississippi River through it, and food produced in America's Breadbasket would eventually make its way to Chicago by train to be stored or distributed to the rest of the country.
Much of this rapid growth occurred during the 1850s and 1860s, and by 1870 the city was struggling to keep up. Lumber was just one of the industries that Chicago did well. Much of the city was constructed out of wood, including nearly two-thirds of the paving on the streets and hundreds of miles of sidewalks. Wealthy residents resided in the north side, while slums and barns surrounded the factories and stockyards in the south.
October 8, 1871
Fires weren't uncommon in Chicago that year, nor the year previous, and the fire department (while somewhat understaffed) was experienced and capable. But the Indian Summer of 1871 was particularly dry. The weather that night remained so, and added a strong wind from the southwest.
About 9 o'clock that Sunday evening, a fire started in the O'Leary barn about a mile to the south and west of Chicago's downtown. Whether a cow kicking a lantern was the actual cause or not is the stuff of legend, but it's certain that the fire destroyed that barn and quickly blew northeast (away from the family's cottage, as it happened). It divided, it jumped, and it moved faster through the dry timber of the buildings than firefighters could keep up.
By midnight it had reached the south branch of the Chicago River and leapt across it. By 1:30 it had reached the center of downtown, crossing the river's east branch just as easily. The north branch kept the fire from spreading any further west, but winds continued to drive it northward. When it destroyed the North Division's pumping stations around 3:30, firefighters knew they had lost the battle.
The fire continued to spread across the city throughout Monday, burning up stone and wood buildings alike, as well as the wooden sidewalks and boats floating on the river. People evacuated their homes and ran north for safety, but found they had to keep going. Carts appeared to carry people to safety; unfortunately, many turned out to be commercial services in search of an easy buck. It wasn't until Tuesday morning that rain began to fall and the flames were ended. But it took at least another day for the city to cool down enough for people to re-enter it.
Surveying the Damage
The "Burnt District" -- four miles long, three-quarters of a mile wide and containing the ashes of some 18,000 buildings -- was the object of several maps printed in the wake of the Fire (which now clearly deserved the capital letter), proceeds from which went to help the survivors. That left 100,000 Chicagoans homeless, three-quarters of whom lived in the North Division. Miraculously, only about 300 deaths were confirmed.
Only about half the property destroyed was insured, but only half of those could be paid for by the overwhelmed (and equally burnt-out) insurance companies. Most of the factories, industries and stockyards in the south and west had escaped the fire, as had the railroads (although not the downtown rail depots).
Before the fire was out Monday afternoon, Chicago mayor Roswell Mason and Common Council President Charles Holden had regrouped a makeshift city government at a church on the west end of the city. Emergency services, citizen deputies, and fixed prices for goods and transportation were established. Money began arriving from across the country and around the world, eventually totalling five million dollars -- a fraction of the 200 million dollars in destruction, but very meaningful to the residents who had lost their homes and livelihoods.
A new First Regiment of Chicago Volunteers was established to patrol the streets, enforce curfews and maintain order, while the existing Chicago Relief and Aid Society quickly took over that part of the city's restoration with the mayor's blessing. The Society distributed food and clothing, provided barracks for the homeless, and worked toward the construction of new homes and creation of new jobs. By 1875 their work was done, and the city had been reconstructed with barely a physical reminder of what had been lost.
Primary source: the Chicago Historical Society's
online exhibition at http://www.chicagohs.org/fire/