The Great Chicago Fire took place from October 8, 1871 to October 10, 1871. This was one of the largest disasters in the United States in the 19th century. Hundreds of people were killed and about four square miles were destroyed. This incidence gained so much importance that the second star on the municipal flag of Chicago is used to remember the fire.
How it Started
It was at about 9 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, that the fire began near a small shed that was along the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street. It is claimed that a cow kicked over the lantern kept in a barn belonging to Patrick and Catherine O'Leary.
The overuse of wood for building in the city, the potent northwesterly winds and a drought before the fire assisted to fan the fire. The citizens did not bother about the fire when it was initiated. The city did not react quickly. Another fire a day before had made the firefighters weary to battle this fire.
Fire on Sunday
The Chicago Fire Department was late to react to the fire. When they reached the scene, it had become close to unstoppable. At about 10:30 p.m., the fire had become unmanageable. A powerful, dry breeze from the southwest blew the fire in the direction of the heart of the city. This worsened the scenario.
In a matter of minutes, industries and mills adjacent to the river were set ablaze. Additional structures were hit by fiery missiles originating from the main blaze. They began burning from top to bottom. The atmosphere was filled with sparks and cinders. This was called a "red rain". In the span of an hour, the west side of the city was reduced to ashes.
There were no symptoms that the fire would diminish. It crossed the Chicago river and moved towards the center of the city. The new Parmalee Omnibus and Stage Company that existed at the southeast corner of Jackson and Franklin streets were the initial structures to be overtaken.
The South Side Gas Works burst into flames and this proved to be another source of the fire. Surprisingly, the grease and oil-covered river also could not escape the fire. Heat and flames were accompaniments of the river. After some time, banks and office buildings lined on LaSalle street were engulfed in the fire.
By now, as a dozen disparate locations were set ablaze it became impractical to control them simultaneously. Further, the fire raged across Wells, Market and Franklin streets. In the process, more than 500 buildings were set on fire. One after another, all these structures collapsed.
The Tribune building, boasted as "fire proof", was transformed into a smoke-issuing ruin. Grandiose hotels like Palmer House, the Tremont, and the Sherman could not resist the fire. Marshall Field's grand department store and hundreds of other businesses were reduced to ash.
Fire on Monday
The fire moved to the courthouse encircled by the LaSalle, Clark, Randolph and Washington streets. Burning timber fell on the wooden cupola of the building and gave rise to an uncontrollable blaze. The building was evacuated and the majority of the prisoners were set free.
After 2:00 a.m., the noise due to the structure's collapse could be heard at a distance of a mile. Just at this time, the State Street bridge also caught fire. Within no time, stables, breweries and warehouses were also set ablaze. The Huron, Cass, Rush, Ontario and Dearborn streets was home to the oldest and prominent families in Chicago.
Come daylight, and these mansions were converted to ruins. By 3:00 a.m., the pumps at the Waterworks on Pine street were demolished. Till evening, the Gothic stone water tower was the only unharmed structure. The citizens had to face not only the fire but also violence and looting. Thoroughly drunk individuals loitered on the paths.
Effects of the Fire
In the morning, a steady rain made its appearance, and the fire began to subside. The city, as well as the inhabitants, was devastated. 300 people were dead and 100,000 became homeless. The area swept by the fire was four miles long and two-thirds of a mile wide.
More than 200 million USD in the form of buildings, as well as archives, records, priceless artwork, deeds, and libraries were destroyed. The destruction of the Federal Building resulted in the loss of $100,000 currency. Chicago became synonymous with a charred wasteland.