Great Chicago Fire of 1871

One dark night, when people were in bed,
Mrs. O’ Leary lit a lantern in her shed,
The cow kicked it over, winked its eye, and said,
There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.

Exactly 148 years ago, 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.

Helpless Citizens Attempting to Escape the Fire

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 https://www.greatchicagofire.org/.

Other sites of interest include:

The official inquiry and the exoneration of Mrs. O’Leary: https://www.greatchicagofire.org/oleary-legend/

A photograph of the O’Leary house: http://www.thechicagofire.com/house.php.

While many of the neighboring residences (not to mention a third of the entire city of Chicago) went up in smoke, the home of the O’Learys escaped destruction. The infamous barn behind the house and most of the animals within it—a horse and the five cows that provided the milk that Catherine O’Leary sold locally—were not so fortunate (a calf was saved).

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. It seems that other fires occurred on the same day in Wisconsin and Michigan, burning an area the size of Connecticut and killing more than 2,000 people. 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.

You can read more about the comet theory at https://rense.com/general69/comet.htm and in many other web sites by starting at: https://duckduckgo.com/?q=%22Great+CHicago+Fire%22+1871&t=brave&ia=web.

6 Comments

148 years ago the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history occurred – the Great Peshtigo Fire – in and around Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Somewhere between 1500 and 2500 persons perished. They were never able to determine how many actually died because the heat from the fire was so intense it completely immolated people and there were too few survivors to be able to identify the extant remains. People jumped into the Peshtigo River to escape the fire and drowned or had their heads burned. The fire was so large and intense that it jumped across Green Bay (the bay of Green Bay) to the Door Peninsula (approx. 20 miles). See:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peshtigo_fire
The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account: http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/wmh/id/46445/show/46360/rec/1

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I am very much interested in the old photos. It’s a beautiful memory.

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The Peshtigo Fire occured the same day, October 8 1871, in northeastern Wisconsin, including much of the Door Peninsula, and adjacent parts of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was the deadliest wildfire in American history with the estimated deaths of around 1,500 people, and possibly as many as 2,500. Unfortunately since it occured the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo Fire has been largely forgotten. There are some excellent books on the subject.

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So the way I learned it was:
One dark night, when we were all in bed,
Old Lady Leary lit a lantern in the shed.
When the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said, “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”
Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!

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My second great-grandparents lived about three blocks from where the fire started (on 12th near Halstead). Luckily for them, the wind was blowing the other way. The record of the inquiry, including the testimony of Mrs. O’Leary and others, is pretty fascinating (the link is in the article). Mrs. O’Leary was apparently having a party that evening and there was some testimony that a few men went out to the shed to drink and started the fire. Other testimony indicated that a large commercial building at the end of the street started on fire at the same time — and it was upwind of the O’Leary residence. This is one of the facts supporting the idea of a meteor shower over the midwest. Also, there was a third large fire in Michigan (on the lower peninsula) on the same night as Chicago and Peshtigo. Just similar weather patterns making multiple areas vulnerable or could something have dropped from the sky?

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Jerrian D. Barsness October 9, 2019 at 5:24 pm

My great-grandparents and their children, and a great-great grandfather, lived at 23 Ada Street. Our story was that Dr. DeMars and the neighboring men poured water all over the roofs so they wouldn’t burn, and My 2x great-grandfather, held my grandfather on the porch, while they did that. That is how Grandpa told it. someone said that there is a plaque with the names of all the people that lived there during the fire, in the vicinity of the building at 23 Ada Street. I wish there was a way I could see the plaque. Does anyone know if a picture of it is online somewhere? Thanks, Jerrian

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