A Visit to the Windy City Part 1: The Chicago Fire of 1871

panorama of Chcago iAs mentioned in a post last week, I spent four days in Chicago with my daughter and son-in-law. Have you ever wondered why it is that Chicago has so many nicknames? The Windy City, The City of the Big Shoulders (from a Carl Sandburg poem), Second City, Chitown, That Toddlin’ Town, My Kind of Town, just to name a few. Perhaps it’s because it is THE major city of the Midwest and has played such a role in the history of this country?Panorama II

We’ve been back a couple of times since moving from Evanston in 1981, but this was our longest visit. What impressed us the most is the cleanliness and neatness of the downtown area, the amazing architecture (old, new and under construction), the ease of getting around, and the incredible number of things to see and do. Hard to squash everything into 3 ½ days.

We ate our way across the city, but more of that later. I’d like to talk a little about the architecture, which is a favorite subject of mine and which I hope has come through in my books via the interests of The Brewster. Much of the amazing architectural history began with Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, which knocked over a lantern and supposedly caused a fire that leveled the city.

Artist's rendering of the fire, Harper's WeeklyThe fire started at about 11:30 P.M, October 8 1871,but according to the Chicago Republican reporter who wrote the O’Leary account, he had made it up as colorful copy. The official report could not find the exact cause but there has been speculation suggesting the fire was caused by a person, instead of a cow.

The fire’s spread was aided by the city’s use of wood as the Aftermath of fire 1predominant building material, the highly flammable tar or shingle roofs, sidewalks and roads made of wood, strong southwest winds that carried flying embers toward the heart of the city, and last but not least, the fact that Chicago had only received an inch of rain from July 4 to October 9.Aftermath of fire, corner of Dearborne and Monroe

In 1871, the Chicago Fire Department had 185 firefighters with just 17 horse-drawn steam engines to protect the entire city. The initial response was quick, but the firefighters were sent to the wrong place, allowing the fire to grow unchecked. The fire destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles, including much of the city’s business district, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless. Damages were estimated at $200 million. fire aftermath

Reconstruction efforts began quickly and spurred great economic development and population growth, so literally from the ashes of old Chicago grew the city we now know.

Today, the Chicago Fire Department training academy is located on the site of the O’Leary property where the Great Chicago Fire started. In 1997, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution exonerating Catherine O’Leary, an Irish immigrant who died in 1895, and her cow.

Chicago Water Tower, which survived the fire
Chicago Water Tower, which survived the fire

In my next post on Chicago, I’ll have pictures of some of the old and new architecture that makes Chicago so amazing.

Chicago Tribune Editorial
Chicago Tribune Editorial



22 thoughts on “A Visit to the Windy City Part 1: The Chicago Fire of 1871”

  1. Great post! I loved the history lesson. 🙂 I was only in Chicago once. It was for a conference, and I didn’t get to really see the city. I went to the Art Institute, had some great Greek food, and looked at the buildings from the taxi on the way back and forth from the airport.

  2. Excellent post, Noelle. I hope to visit Chicago one day.

    After all, as Frank Sinatra was wont to sing, “My kind of town, Chicago is my kind of town!”

      1. Oh, the city still making headlines for murder and mayhem. It’s very sad.

        You have to be aware and careful where you travel in Baltimore; but perhaps that is true of everywhere. 🙂

  3. I like the story better when the fire was started by a cow. No one would ever suspect the cow of intentionally setting fire to the city. Its the perfect cover.

  4. As one of your readers said, above, I visited Chicago once for a conference and never actually ‘saw’ the city. Your post makes me want to return and get to know it.

  5. Wow, those photos look a lot like the ones that came out of the Great Fire that leveled San Francisco in the 1800s. Kinda scary how fast things can just be obliterated… even by today’s standards!

    1. But both fires spread because of wooden structures and both fires created a canvas on which the modern cities rose.
      Probably the only good thing to result.

  6. Reblogged this on Stepheny Forgue Houghtlin and commented:
    You know that the new novel, Facing East, is set in the Chicago area and beyond. Author Noelle Granger recently took a trip to Chicago and has written two posts about this great city. You will love her quick tour. Be sure to check on her two mysteries, which you will enjoy and follow her bog where these posts appear.

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