City Devastated by Great Chicago Fire of 1871
In terms of lives lost, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was not the deadliest catastrophe in the city’s history. In the extent of its damage, however, the Great Fire was the biggest disaster. The blaze, whose origins are unknown, began Sunday night, Oct. 8, 1871. Strong winds out of the southwest whipped the flames into towering walls of fire that burned uncontrollably. With the city’s waterworks damaged, firefighters were unable to combat the fire. People fled in panic with only the clothes on their back, having no time to salvage any of their possessions. Large coal and lumber yards roared up in flames, adding to the fire’s heat and intensity. Finally, a drizzle that began Monday night and turned into a steady, light rain Tuesday morning put out the flames, but not until after a huge swath of northern Chicago was turned into blackened, smoking ruins.
In all, four square miles of Chicago burned. Over 17,000 buildings, including City Hall, were destroyed, and an unknown number of people killed, estimated between 200 and 300. Showing a remarkable resiliency, the people of Chicago immediately set about rebuilding their city—and just 22 years later, Chicago hosted millions of people for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
This initial report of the Great Chicago Fire was printed by the Leavenworth Bulletin (Leavenworth, Kansas) on the front page of its Oct. 8, 1871, issue:
Chicago, Oct. 8.—At 12 o’clock the most terrible conflagration that ever occurred in this city broke out and has already swept over six entire blocks and is still raging with almost unabating fury. The fire started in a large planing mill, situated between Clinton and Canal and Van Buren and Jackson streets, about the center of the block formed by those streets. The wind blowing very fresh, the flames spread with almost incredible rapidity and in a few minutes the entire structure was a mass of fire. The immediate vicinity was mostly wooden tenement houses and two-story frame buildings, occupied as saloons and groceries. The inmates of many of the houses were startled from their slumbers and had barely time to rush from the house in scanty attire, leaving their household goods to destruction. In several instances children were hastily wrapped in blankets and quilts to break the force of their fall and thrown from second-story windows to the ground. When the alarm sounded for this fire, another of considerable magnitude was burning on Wells street near Adams. Several engines were necessarily kept at work on this, and the rest of the engines in the city were soon on the ground, but before they arrived the fire had spread over so large an area and was so rapidly spreading that their efforts seem little. On the road between Canal street and the river were several lumber yards which are entirely destroyed. At this hour the fire has made a clear sweep from Van Buren street north two blocks to Adams, and west to Clinton.
The wharves between Van Buren and Jackson streets are burning. A large coal yard situated between the tracks of the Chicago & Alton and Pittsburg & Ft. Wayne railroads and the river is on fire. An immense grain elevator immediately adjoining will be destroyed, as the intense heat to which it is subjected will crack the slate with which it is covered, both roof and sides. It contains many thousand bushels of grain, of all kinds.
The depot of the Pittsburg, Ft. Wayne & Chicago, and Alton & St. Louis railroad is on flames at midnight and will be destroyed.
1:30 a.m.—The fire is apparently raging as unabatingly as ever and a block of buildings on the north side of Van Buren street, which it was thought an hour ago would be saved, are now wrapped in flames.