American History · history

Myth and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

It was evening on the night of October 8, 1871 at 137 Devon Street in Chicago’s southwest side. Catherine O’Leary was trying to fall asleep after a long day of working at her profitable dairy business. Catherine and her husband, Patrick, were Irish immigrants who had escaped Ireland after the famine and were searching for a better life. They had bought a $500 double cottage and barn. Catherine’s business had grown so much that by 1871 she owned six cows and a horse/wagon for transportation. On this night, her husband and her five children were also asleep. Catherine struggled to fall asleep as her tenants, the Laughlin’s, (who rented the second half of the cottage from the O’Leary’s) were having a party with fiddle music. Around 9pm, there was a loud knock upon their front door. To the O’Leary family’s horror, their neighbor brought to their attention that their barn was aflame. They tried to quickly save the animals and other supplies (only a calf would end up surviving), but it was unsuccessful. Little did the O’Leary’s know, but their life (and all of Chicago’s history) was about to change.

At this time, Chicago was a fast growing city and had become the “Gateway to the West”. The city had a prime location upon the shores of Lake Michigan. All railroads would pass through Chicago as they traveled from the East to the West. It brought in many different people from all different types of backgrounds. Entrepreneurs were attracted to this city that oozed opportunity. The railroad, livestock/meatpacking, lumber, and steel industries were booming. Supplies would come in from various parts of the country through the railroad and then would be made into products ready to be shipped out. As the city expanded (by 1850 the population was about 300,000 and still growing), beautiful buildings began to be built. The Palmer Hotel and the Court House (claimed to be “fireproof” at the time) were some of the finest. Chicago wanted to stand up with some of the great cities of the East (New York, Boston, Philadelphia). Unfortunately, with the expansion and the hustle culture of the city, buildings were made quick and cheap. Most buildings of pre-fire Chicago were made almost entirely of wood. This included the streets and the bridges. The areas where Catherine O’Leary and the rest of the immigrant poor lived were small one story buildings that were close together.

Fire Engine during this era

As the city grew, so did the divide between the east coast Protestant aristocrats (who populated the North side) and the poor immigrants who lived in the slums. The immigrants were the factory workers and those who truly shaped Chicago into a successful city. One of the biggest groups of immigrants were the Irish Catholics who built communities and parishes in Chicago. Yet, they were also one of the most hated. The elite of Chicago (and in many other places in America) spread and published hateful words about the Irish immigrants. There was a big anti-Catholic sentiment at this time and they were eyed with suspicion. They would spread lies that the women were loose and the men were drunks. Yet, most just wanted to make a better life for themselves.

Newly freed African Americans also began to move to Chicago to find work and opportunity. They began to create communities in the South side as well. They began to feel prejudice as well.

The fall of 1871 had been extremely hot and dry. As of October 8th, the city had gone months without any rain. There had been over 20 fires within the first week, so conditions were ideal for a spark to erupt. Even the Chicago Tribune newspaper warned that any little spark could likely cause great destruction if let go unchecked. For a city of 300,000 citizens, there were only a bit less than 200 firemen. At this time, fires were put out by the horse drawn fire trucks. The firemen had been very busy already this month and were worn down, injured, and had damaged equipment.

When the watchmen first caught sight of the blaze from the O’Leary’s barn, they had misdirected the fire workers which caused them to arrive over 45 minutes late. The blaze had latched onto the dry, wooden buildings and was quickly consuming all in its path. People in nearby neighborhoods would watch the fire as a source of entertainment. That is until it started to burn further north as it was picked up by the heavy winds.

Many describe the view of this blaze as the apocalypse. It looked like the end of days as the fire kept raging higher and higher. The roar became very loud and one could feel the heat everywhere. It spread into the business district where it became a panic as the watchers realized that it was not stopping. The blaze was coming for them. It was described at some point as a 100 foot wall of flames that charged through the city. The “fireproof” court house eventually burned and collapsed. The great bell that had been ringing in alarm smashed to the ground in a loud clang. There were prisoners who were trapped in the prison inside the court house. Lucky for them, the mayor signed an order that they were to be released due to the events transpiring. Many escaped into the panic of the crowds.

The fire actually was able to cross the Chicago river twice during the 48 hours it raged. It was like it was a living creature. The fire workers could not keep up with the blaze. Eventually, it damaged the Chicago water works (actually one of the few buildings that survive to this day) and the fire workers had no access to the water supply to fight the fire. Everyone was now on their own. The wooden bridges were clogged with people desperate to flee the city. Families were separated in the panic. One could see many carrying as many precious belongings as they could. Some carried their mattresses upon their backs. Others, mostly in the richer neighborhoods, wore all the jewels they owned. It is hard to say what one would decide to take with them given only about two minutes to decide. Some people buried important items in hopes that they would be able to find it later. The owner of the Palmer Hotel actually was able to bury the blueprints which helped in the rebuilding effort later. Many people rushed to the lake where they stood in the lake for hours watching their livelihoods burn in the blaze.

Joseph Hudlin was a former slave who had also moved to Chicago with his family for a better life. He had a respectable position at the Board of Trade. During the fire, Hudlin bravely ran towards the Board of Trade offices (which were about to be burned in the fire) and saved critical documents before the building collapsed. His brave action made sure that Chicago would be able to rebuild quickly due to the documents and records that were saved. Later, the Hudlins would offer their surviving home to help families left homeless and in need in the aftermath of the flames. They would help any in need including both white and black neighbors. Hudlin would be recognized as a hero and his portrait would be hung in the new Board of Trade offices.

Joseph Hudlin and his wife, Anna Elizabeth

Finally, by some miracle, it began to rain on the night of October 9th after months of a drought. This ultimately extinguished the fire by October 10th 1871. The fire had left an estimated 300 people dead, one third of the population homeless (about 100,000), and 17,450 buildings destroyed. For those that survived, the city looked like a warzone. The fire had left a path of destruction four miles wide and one mile long. It was an open vista from the South side to the North. Much of the citizen’s belongings were now melted or turned to ash. One can imagine the panic as people began to search for missing loved ones. They would put ads in the papers and wait at any landmark they could find until they, hopefully, found who they were looking for. Many were never found.

All that progress over the past 40 years seemed to have been over in an instant, but many underestimated the energy the people of Chicago had. They began rebuilding as soon as possible. Businesses re-opened the day after the fire. They would build small wooden shacks to continue to hustle. The newspapers continued to run, including the Chicago Tribune which published the famous line “Chicago Shall Rise Again”. Many of the stockyards were untouched so the industries could continue, the railroads were still intact and many of the bank vaults still survived. This was national news, so donations from all over the country began pouring in. People in New York City and the East were encouraged to come to Chicago still as it was a city of opportunity. Now, they had a chance to rebuild even stronger. Even Queen Victoria in England, sent over a large number of books which started the first Chicago Public Library.

Unfortunately, many people wanted a scapegoat to point the finger at after this disaster. That fell hard upon the poor, especially the Irish Catholic immigrants. Despite being cleared in the official inquiry, Catherine O’Leary was destroyed in the public opinion. The newspapers and, later, books about the event came up with the myth that her cow had knocked over the lantern while she was milking it. This was completely untrue. Catherine had many things going against her, she was a successful business woman and she was Irish. She was portrayed looking like a witch who did this out of revenge. Despite speaking clearly and intelligently at the inquiry in the events (convincing law enforcement of her innocence), she was portrayed as an old senile woman (she was only 40 at the time). Ironically, her home survived. This was due to her husband and some of the neighbors filling wash tubs early in the night and keeping the home continuously damp. But, she did lose her barn, her livestock, and her business that she worked so hard for. Now she had to hide from photographers looking to take her pictures and vilify her to the city and nation. The official cause for the fire was not any specific person, but overall bad construction of the buildings and unsafe conditions. This was the opportunity for the white, Protestant, elite of Chicago to try and push out the Irish and other immigrants that they found to be undesirable.

During the initial rebuild, the city went under martial law (the first to be occupied since the Civil War). The official Relief and Aid Society was set up and run by the elite of Chicago. If one qualified, the society would help rebuild your business and your homes. Many would be able to obtain a relief kit which would give the materials to build your own temporary relief cottage for your family. They would help you find jobs as well as workers were need to help clear the rubble and rebuild the city to its former glory. As one can imagine, they were quicker to help certain people more than others. To many with immigrant backgrounds, they were strongly encouraged to take a free railroad pass and leave the city. About 30,000 left the city in the aftermath of the Chicago Fire. The majority were Irish Catholics.

A portrayal of Catherine O’Leary in the media

Catherine O’Leary and her family stayed in the Chicago area. Yet, every anniversary she had to be faced with the hate and the blame towards her. She was branded a welfare queen with fire as her revenge, yet she had never taken welfare in her life. Every anniversary, people would attempt to interview her and take her picture. Oftentimes they would publish fake interviews/photographs. In the anniversary parades, they re-enacted her as a caricature with her cow. In 1879, the O’Leary’s sold the cottage and left their community that they helped to build. They moved to the outskirts where Catherine lived as a recluse. Even after death, she could not be free of the publicity. People would desecrate her grave. They put her name in songs about the fire (such as the popular song, “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”) to keep the myth alive. She would go down in history as the villain when in reality she had been a hard working woman just trying to make the American dream a reality. It is still unknown the true start of the fire. It could have possible been her tenants during their party, it could have been a group of kids playing in the barn, or someone who snuck in to smoke a pipe. But, the conditions of Chicago and the bad craftsmanship of the buildings would make a disaster like this inevitable. If it was not Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, it could have been anywhere.

By 1893, Chicago showed off its beauty and rebuilding efforts by becoming the site of the Worlds Fair. This was extremely important to the city and a lot of that pride must have come from the quick turn around from the destruction of the fire just about 20 years before. Chicago became a changed city, and likely for the better. They rebuilt buildings stronger and with more safety precautions in place. Young architects flowed in from all parts of the country and contributed their new ideas to the city. This was a challenge that they could undertake and a blank slate that they could put their name to. Skyscrapers begin to emerge within the decade which creates the skyline that we are familiar with today. One of the few remaining buildings, the water works, became a symbol of of civic pride. Chicago could have floundered during the years after the Great Fire, but the great entrepreneur spirit, the energy, and the creativity of the people helped to become the glory it was at the Worlds Fair and today.

Chicago Water Works


PBS Chicago Stories, The Great Chicago Fire: A Chicago Stories Special.

From Britannica

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