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150 Years Since the Great Chicago Fire (8-10 October 1871)

Here at the Museum of Fire our collection focus is on preserving the history of local firefighting history, specifically that of firefighting in NSW and across Australia.

For that reason, we don’t often bring you stories from overseas however this week, 150 years ago, the Great Chicago Fire occurred, and we thought it was a good opportunity to share a brief history of the devastating event as it had far reaching ramifications for the development of fire protection.

Around 8.30 pm on 8 0ctober 1871, a fire began in a small barn. This, in itself, was not something that would be anticipated to cause severe widespread damage and destruction, but prevailing conditions made this possible. Among the factors playing a role were that the city was in the midst of a drought, most buildings were constructed from wood, extremely strong winds propelled the fire and the city’s water supply was grossly inadequate to fight the size of such an intense blaze. Official investigations were never able to determine the initial cause of the barn fire that was to have such a devastation impact on the city of Chicago.

Very quickly the barn fire spread to a neighbouring building and before much could be done it had made its way towards the central business district of the city. Its path was helped along by the numerous timber yards and warehouses (made of wood of course).

Initially the fire was contained to one side of the river but in the middle of the night embers and debris were blown across the river igniting the South Side Gas Works and spreading the fire further.

Once the fire crossed the river the people of Chicago began to panic. As the fire grew larger and the winds picked up a tornado like phenomenon whipped the fire around which spread flaming debris and embers even further across the city causing people to flee for their lives. At the courthouse, prisoners were freed so that they could make their escape.

At the time of the fire Chicago only employed 185 firefighters with just 17 horse-drawn steam pumpers at their disposal. Despite everything being against them the firefighters battled the blaze admirably however in the early hours of the morning of 9th October the fire spread to the city’s waterworks and within minutes the city’s water supply was cut off. Now it became a recovery and rescue mission for firefighters who had very limited tools at their disposal without accessible water.

Finally on the evening of the 9th, by which time the fire had been raging for over 24 hours, rain began to fall. It wouldn’t be until the next day that the fire was declared out however the smouldering remains, and spot fires would remain for days later.

It has been estimated that the fire destroyed approximately 2,000 acres of the city. This included around 17,500 buildings with the damage bill estimated at $222 million (approximately $5 billion in today’s money). Around one in three of the city’s residents were left homeless and the death toll was somewhere between 120-300.

To prevent looting and a loss of law and order the city was placed under martial law for two weeks with police and troops patrolling the city.

The fire had a major impact across America, not just in Chicago. Questions were raised about building standards, materials used and how the rise in modern industries disposed of their rubbish. One of the reasons the fire had been able to spread so fast was because many of the factories did not dispose of their rubbish in the correct manner. Many simply dumped it in the river which had helped the fire spread across the river.

The ramifications of the fire were also felt by the fire brigade which was reshaped and redeveloped to become one of the leading fire departments in the country.

The city was rebuilt almost straight away and just over twenty years later it hosted a world’s exposition, showcasing just how modern and regenerated the city had become.

The aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, 1871 (George N. Barnard, Art Institute of Chicago)

Whilst we were putting this quick history together, we came across the story of another fire that occurred on the same day in the area of Peshtigo, Wisconsin just 400km north of Chicago. In this instance fire destroyed the town and several villages covering an area of 1.2 million acres. Sadly over 1,500 people died with the death toll estimated to be as high as 2,500.

The devastation of this fire in terms of destruction size and human loss of life outweighs the Chicago fire but due to the remoteness of Peshtigo and impact of the Chicago fire it is often forgotten.

The cause of this blaze was an out-of-control backburning operation and it remains the deadliest fire in American history. To learn more about this blaze we recommend checking out the Peshtigo Fire Museum’s website:

Artists rendition of the 1871 Peshtigo Fire (Peshtigo Fire Museum Memorial, Wisconsin)

Before we finish this blog, we need to make mention of a well-known story that is thought to be about how the Great Chicago Fire began. The barn in which the fire started was owned by the O’Leary family and one theory about the origins of the fire is that a lantern was knocked over. The most popular (albeit we don’t know how true it is) version is that a cow knocked over the lantern. This story has become very widespread in popular culture with even the Beach Boys having a song inspired by this cow!

How cow-straphic if this was the actual cause!?

The Museum's Heritage Team had a look at the Museum's collection to see if we had any items related to Chicago. We didn't excpect to find anything as it is outside our collection policy but what the team found was this photo (shown below) featuring the Chief Officer of the Chicago Brigade at NSWFB Headquarters with Chief Officer Ray Barber, c. 1965.

Thanks for joining us for this look at a major fire that occurred 150 years ago overseas.

-Museum of Fire Heritage Team

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