Throwback Thursday: Great Chicago Fire Destroys Emancipation Proclamation & 4 Square Miles

It was a pivotal event in Chicago’s history. One of our more destructive events bearing a silver lining. A fire that burned down nearly a whole city, paving the way to produce one of Americas greatest modern day metropolises. This month on October in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burns through 4 square miles for 3 days straight, marking the beginning of a city reborn.

More than two thirds of the structures in Chicago were made entirely of wood. Even the side walks and roads were made of wood. To top it off Chicago only received 1 inch of rain that summer, causing a severe drought beforehand. Southwest winds help carry burning embers throughout. The Chicago Fire Department only had 185 firefighters and 17 horse drawn steam engines to protect the city. In the aftermath after the fires were extinguished on Oct. 10, 120 bodies were recovered, 300 total estimated fatalities and $222 million in property was destroyed: a third of the cities worth in that year. One in 3 residents were left homeless. Even the original manuscript of President Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation was destroyed.

There are many theories speculating the start of the great fire however no official suspect or arrest to a conclusion was made. Four of the most popular theories would be that one: pieces of Biela’s comet broke up over the Midwest, sparking fires not only in Chicago but in Michigan and Wisconsin, marking the nations most deadly fire in the same week of Chicago’s. People reported seeing blue flames and other fire from the sky, however unlikely as comets do not start fires normally.

A second and most plausible theory would come through a confession. Businessman and gambler Louis M. Cohn, 18 at the time of the blaze, admitted to accidentally starting the fire after playing craps in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn with her son and friends. When Mrs. O’Leary finds and chases them all out, they knockover the lantern which started the blaze. Cohn states to have paused long enough during their flight to grab money he dropped on the floor.

Of course the most popular theory suggests the fire started in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn as she milked her cow and it knocked over a lantern igniting the blaze. This story spread faster than the flames it seemed as it circulated around the city before the fire ever even burnt out. Mrs. O’Leary denies the allegation, stating she was sleeping before the fire started. But the story was too popular that even when Michael Ahern, the reporter that published the theory in Chicago Tribune, confessed to fabricating the story. Mrs. O’Leary still faced scrutiny.

Another theory claims Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan, who first reported the fire, may have ignited the flames while he was trying to steal some milk. In his report he claimed to have seen fire coming from the side of the barn and he ran across Dekoven street, where the fire first started, to free the animals inside. Despite inconsistencies in the claim, Mrs. O’Leary was exonerated of the allegations in 1997 and the actions of Sullivan now take the scrutiny instead.

Following the fire monetary donations were flowing into Chicago from the rest of the country and abroad. New York, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, Scotland and even the Common Council of London donated funds along with surrounding cities with basic needs and essentials. With the city under need for new development, industrialization flourishes and the city expands rapidly. New expansion efforts gives opportunity for Chicago to be home to the worlds first skyscrapers, the nations first non-exhibition rapid transit system powered by electric traction motors and the Worlds Columbian Exposition and Worlds Fair. Today the only surviving buildings from the fire includes St. Michaels Church in Old Town, Chicago’s Water Tower, Chicago Avenue Pumping Station, Police Constable Bellinger’s cottage at 2121 N. Hudson and a house on Fullerton and Cleveland.

Chicago Water Tower and Pumping Station

Panorama View of Chicago Fire Aftermath

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