Today in History: Great Chicago Fire Extinguished at Last

Today in History: Great Chicago Fire Extinguished at Last

M.C. Millman

Early morning rain on October 10, 1871, was the antidote for finally extinguishing the three-day deadly blaze in Chicago, Illinois. 

The Great Chicago Fire began around 9 p.m. on October 8. It is said to have originated in a barn owned by Catherine and Patrick O'Leary on DeKoven Street. The cause of the fire remains a mystery, but legend has it that a cow kicked over a lantern in a barn, setting it ablaze. 

The deadly combination of strong wind, a dry summer, and a city mainly composed of wood structures helped the blaze rapidly spread through the heart of Chicago's business district. According to National Geographic, the fire is estimated to have killed around 300 people and left one-third of the city's population, 90,000 people, homeless. Before rain extinguished it, the fire burned an area 4 miles long and 1 mile wide, destroying 17,500 buildings and 73 miles of street. 

The monetary damage from the fire is estimated at around $222 million, the equivalent of multiple billions of dollars today. Ironically, Chicago's Fire Department Training Academy today stands on the former O'Leary property where the fire originated. 

Some historians have a positive spin on the event, speculating that the fire helped shape Chicago into the large city it is today. While the fire burned through many houses and buildings, many larger buildings housing major industries were built using solid masonry, and transportation systems and other infrastructure remained intact. 

The Chicago Architecture Center theorizes, "Chicago's old wooden infrastructure may have slowed industrial growth and the development of lands for residential and commercial use."

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