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Other newspapers were a bit more gracious. They reported that the fire was an accident -- that a kerosene lamp was knocked over during milking, either by the cow or by Mrs. O'Leary maintained, however, that her entire family was asleep in the house when the fire started. The official inquiry into the fire -- despite its over one thousand pages of testimony -- did not determine the exact cause of the fire. But the damage to Mrs. O'Leary was done, and she and her cow have lived on in Chicago legend.

Historians generally agree that the fire started in the barn behind the O'Leary home. But did the cow really kick over a lantern? Was someone besides Mrs.

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O'Leary to blame? Several other characters lurk on the edges of this crime scene. Let's take a look at these possible culprits on the next page. Regardless of how the fire started, why weren't the fire fighters able to put it out? Mason sent messages to nearby towns asking for help. When the courthouse caught fire, he ordered the building to be evacuated and the prisoners jailed in the basement to be released. These fire whirls are likely what drove flaming debris so high and so far. Such debris was blown across the main branch of the Chicago River to a railroad car carrying kerosene.

Also likely a factor in the fire's rapid spread was the amount of flammable waste that had accumulated in the river from years of improper disposal methods used by local industries. Despite the fire spreading and growing rapidly, the city's firefighters continued to battle the blaze.

Within minutes, the interior of the building was engulfed in flames and the building was destroyed. Finally, late into the evening of the 9th, it started to rain, but the fire had already started to burn itself out. The fire had spread to the sparsely populated areas of the north side, having consumed the densely populated areas thoroughly. Once the fire had ended, the smoldering remains were still too hot for a survey of the damage to be completed for many days.

Of the approximately , inhabitants of Chicago in , 90, Chicago residents 1 in 3 residents were left homeless. In the days and weeks following the fire, monetary donations flowed into Chicago from around the country and abroad, along with donations of food, clothing, and other goods. These donations came from individuals, corporations, and cities.

Milwaukee , along with other nearby cities, helped by sending fire-fighting equipment. Additionally, food, clothing and books were brought by train from all over the continent. Operating from the First Congregational Church , city officials and aldermen began taking steps to preserve order in Chicago. Many people who were left homeless after the incident were never able to get their normal lives back since all their personal papers and belongings burned in the conflagration.

After the fire, A. In April , the City Council passed the ordinance to establish the free Chicago Public Library , starting with the donation from the United Kingdom of more than 8, volumes. The fire also led to questions about development in the United States. Based on a religious point of view, some said that Americans should return to a more old-fashioned way of life, and that the fire was caused by people ignoring traditional morality.

On the other hand, others believed that a lesson to be learned from the fire was that cities needed to improve their building techniques. Frederick Law Olmsted observed that poor building practices in Chicago were a problem:. It did a great deal of commercial advertising in its house-tops. The faults of construction as well as of art in its great showy buildings must have been numerous.

Their walls were thin, and were overweighted with gross and coarse misornamentation. Olmsted also believed that with brick walls, and disciplined firemen and police, the deaths and damage caused would have been much less. Almost immediately, the city began to rewrite its fire standards, spurred by the efforts of leading insurance executives, and fire-prevention reformers such as Arthur C. Chicago soon developed one of the country's leading fire-fighting forces.

Business owners, and land speculators such as Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard , quickly set about rebuilding the city. The first load of lumber for rebuilding was delivered the day the last burning building was extinguished. By the World's Columbian Exposition 22 years later, Chicago hosted more than 21 million visitors. The Palmer House hotel burned to the ground in the fire 13 days after its grand opening. Its developer, Potter Palmer, secured a loan and rebuilt the hotel to higher standards across the street from the original, proclaiming it to be "The World's First Fireproof Building".

In , the remaining structures on the original O'Leary property at W. A bronze sculpture of stylized flames, entitled Pillar of Fire by sculptor Egon Weiner , was erected on the point of origin in Michael's Church and the Pumping Station were both gutted in the fire, but their exteriors survived, and the buildings were rebuilt using the surviving walls. Additionally, though the inhabitable portions of the building were destroyed, the bell tower of St.

James Cathedral survived the fire and was incorporated into the rebuilt church. The stones near the top of the tower are still blackened from the soot and smoke. A couple of wooden cottages on North Cleveland Avenue also survived the blaze. Almost from the moment the fire broke out, various theories about its cause began to circulate.

The cow kicked over a lantern or an oil lamp in some versions , setting fire to the barn. The O'Leary family denied this, stating that they were in bed before the fire started, but stories of the cow began to spread across the city. Catherine O'Leary seemed the perfect scapegoat : she was a poor, Irish Catholic immigrant.

During the latter half of the 19th century, anti-Irish sentiment was strong throughout the United States and in Chicago. This was intensified as a result of the growing political power of the city's Irish population. O'Leary was a target of both anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment.


This story was circulating in Chicago even before the flames had died out, and it was noted in the Chicago Tribune ' s first post-fire issue. In the reporter Michael Ahern retracted the "cow-and-lantern" story, admitting it was fabricated, but even his confession was unable to put the legend to rest. Amateur historian Richard Bales has suggested the fire started when Daniel "Pegleg" Sullivan, who first reported the fire, ignited hay in the barn while trying to steal milk.

The Great Chicago Fire Wasn’t Started by a Cow

The Chicago Public Library staff criticized his account in their web page on the fire. Cohn may have started the fire during a craps game. When Mrs. O'Leary came out to the barn to chase the gamblers away at around , they knocked over a lantern in their flight, although Cohn states that he paused long enough to scoop up the money. The bequest was given to the school on September 28, An alternative theory, first suggested in by Ignatius L. This was described as "A fringe theory" concerning Biela's Comet.

The Great Chicago Fire 1871

At a conference of the Aerospace Corporation and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics , engineer and physicist Robert Wood suggested that the fire began when Biela's Comet broke up over the Midwest. That four large fires took place, all on the same day, all on the shores of Lake Michigan see Related Events , suggests a common root cause.

Eyewitnesses reported sighting spontaneous ignitions, lack of smoke, "balls of fire" falling from the sky, and blue flames.

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According to Wood, these accounts suggest that the fires were caused by the methane that is commonly found in comets. Moreover, if a fragment of an icy comet were to strike the Earth, the most likely outcome, due to the low tensile strength of such bodies, would be for it to disintegrate in the upper atmosphere, leading to an air burst explosion analogous to that of the Tunguska event.

A common cause for the fires in the Midwest in the fall of is that the area had suffered through a tinder-dry summer, so that winds from the front that moved in that evening were capable of generating rapidly expanding blazes from available ignition sources, which were plentiful in the region. On that hot, dry, and windy autumn day, three other major fires occurred along the shores of Lake Michigan at the same time as the Great Chicago Fire.

It killed 1, to 2, people and charred approximately 1. The Peshtigo Fire remains the deadliest in American history [45] but the remoteness of the region meant it was little noticed at the time, due to the fact that one of the first things that burned were the telegraph lines to Green Bay.

A billboard for the destroyed Globe Theatre, surrounded by rubble. Looking across the ruins of the Field, Leiter and Co. A man stands in the ruins of a stove warehouse. A man stands in front of the stone arch of the Second Presbyterian Church, through which can be seen the remains of the Chicago Tribune building and court house.

View from the interior of the Union Depot. The southern limits of the Great Chicago Fire of , located at Wabash near Congress, blown up by General Sheridan to halt the fire. The aftermath of the fire.

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Men stand and look at the ruins of buildings. View of the ruins of the Chicago Historical Society's library building. The rubble and broken buildings in the aftermath of the fire. Countless buildings lay in ruins. More than three square miles of the city burned during the Great Chicago Fire.

The Great Chicago Fire

Destroyed buildings dominate the cityscape in the aftermath. Wikimedia Commons. The hollowed-out facade of a building destroyed in the fire. Drawing of the ruins of the city's business center looking southwest after the fire. A building left in ruins after the fire. State Street in the aftermath. A view along a street of ruined buildings. The damaged Great Union Depot, viewed from north to south. Two boys sit on top of a partial stone wall in the wreckage of a burned-out building at Madison and Clark Streets, with the court house in the background.