138 years ago next week, a great fire roared through the city of Chicago. No one knows for sure whether a lantern-kicking cow of the O'Leary's was really responsible for starting the Great Chicago Fire on October 8, 1871. In fact, some believe the fire was started by a comet from outer space.
The fire started in the cow barn at the rear of the Patrick O'Leary cottage at 137 DeKoven Street on Chicago's West Side. The blaze began about 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, 1871. By midnight the fire had jumped the river's south branch, and by 1:30 a.m. the business district was in flames. Shortly thereafter the fire raced northward across the main river. With the limited firefighting equipment of 1871, the city's fire department was helpless as the flames jumped from building to building.
The waterworks were evacuated although the tower was not badly damaged and still stands. During Monday the fire burned as far as Fullerton Avenue. Rainfall started about midnight and helped put out the last of the flames. Three hundred Chicagoans were dead, 90,000 people (about 20 percent of the city's residents) were homeless, and the property loss was $200 million. Four square miles of the city burned to the ground.
Chicago quickly rebuilt, and by 1875, little evidence of the disaster remained. You can read more about this cataclysmic event on the Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory web site, sponsored by the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University. Look at http://www.chicagohs.org/fire/index.html
Other sites of interest include:
- The official inquiry and the exoneration of Mrs. O'Leary: http://www.thechicagofire.com/exoneration.php
- Mrs. O'Leary's testimony before the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners: http://www.thechicagofire.com/testimony.php
- A photograph of the O'Leary house: http://www.thechicagofire.com/house.php. Ironically, the Chicago Fire Academy now stands on the O'Leary property.
Finally, did a comet cause the Great Chicago Fire of 1871? Don't laugh.
Contrary to popular folklore, the Chicago fire is not the worst in U.S. history. It was not even the worst to occur on the evening of October 8 that year. The same evening -- in fact, at the same time, about 9:30 -- a fierce wildfire struck in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, over 200 miles to the north of Chicago, destroying the town and a dozen other villages. Estimates of those killed range upward from 1200 to 2500 in a single night. Many of the deceased included people who showed no signs of being burned, consistent with either the absence of oxygen or the presence of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide above lethal levels, both conditions that could happen in a comet strike.
It was not the Chicago fire but the simultaneous "Peshtigo Fire" that was the deadliest in U.S. history.
You can read more about the comet theory at http://www.rense.com/general69/comet.htm.