The Legend of the Great Chicago Fire Lives on at 150 Years
On October 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire began and lasted for three days. The fire killed approximately 300 people, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless. An extended period of hot dry windy conditions, the wooden construction prevalent in the city, and loosely enforced fire codes led to the legendary blaze.
Legend has long held that a cow being milked by Catherine O’Leary kicked over a kerosene lantern, igniting a barn fire that spread into the notorious inferno. Mrs. O’Leary was an Irish immigrant living in Chicago with her husband, Patrick, and three children, one of whom, James Patrick O’Leary, ran a well-known saloon and gambling hall. On the evening of October 8, 1871, a fire consumed the O’Leary family's barn.
Local firefighters, exhausted from fighting a large fire the previous day, were initially sent to the wrong neighborhood after the alarm rang. By the time they arrived at the O’Leary’s, the fire was already out of control and quickly spread. High winds blew the flames to other nearby buildings and carried hot embers toward the heart of the city, burning a large percentage of Chicago.
Even though the investigation could not pinpoint a cause officially and cleared Mrs. O’Leary of any wrongdoing, the press was relentless. At the time, some reporters made up details and stories, but the damage was done. Mrs. O’Leary became a convenient scapegoat. A century and a half later, many Americans still pin the most famous fire on her shoulders.
A few years after the fire, the O’Leary family left their house on DeKoven Street, which had survived the fire, and moved further away from the city center. More than 100 years after Catherine O’Leary’s death, the city exonerated her of any wrongdoing. While the fire did start in her barn, the precise cause of the spark that destroyed much of the city is still unknown.