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The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

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The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was one of the largest disasters in American history. Practically overnight the great city of Chicago was destroyed. Before the fire there was a large drought causing everything to be dry and flammable, then a fire broke out in the O'Leary's barn and spread throughout the city. Many attempts were made to put out the fire but there were too many errors and problems in the beginning. After the fire many people were left homeless and had to help build their city again (Murphy, 39)

Before the fire broke out on Sunday night, October 8, 1871 there had been a large drought causing everything to be dry and extremely flammable. Many fires had been breaking out in Chicago. Records show that in 1870 the fire fighters went to nearly 600 fires. On Saturday night there had been a large fire that destroyed about four blocks and lasted for 16 hours. Another reason why everything in Chicago was so flammable was because almost the entire city was made out of wood. It was a lot worse in the middle class and poor sections of the town (19). Just about every house was made out of wood. Even buildings that claimed to be fire proof had wood roofs covered with tar. The richer part of town had stone and brick homes, but wooden interiors, wooden stables, and wooden storage buildings (Cromie, 81). Chicago was built on marshland and every time it rained the city flooded, so to help this problem the roads were made out of wood and elevated above the waterline. The day the fire started there were over 55 miles of pine-block street and 600 miles of wooden sidewalks. "Chicago in 1871 was a city ready to burn," according to Jim Murphy, author of The Great Fire (Murphy, 18).

It was Sunday October 8th about 8:45pm, when Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan went to visit the O'Learys' house only to find out they were asleep. So Sullivan walked across the street to Thomas White's house and sat down to lean against the fence. The wind was very strong that night and there was a party at the McLaughlin's to celebrate the arrival of a relative from Ireland. Sullivan decided to go home when he noticed a fire in the O'Learys' barn. He started shouting, "FIRE!" as loud as he could and ran to the barn to save the five cows, horse, and calf inside. As he did, his peg leg got stuck in the floorboards. He hung onto the calf as they made their way out (13, 14,15).

There were many stories about how the fire broke out, but no one really knows what happened. Some stories say that the O'Learys' cow kicked over a lantern in the stable; others say the O'Learys' intentionally started the fire. An anarchist group called the Societe Internatianale was blamed, and even a fire extinguisher salesman was accused because people say he was showing people how his product was useful. The editor of one paper said that a higher being was responsible and that God was balancing the acts done by the North to the South in the Civil War. No one is sure how the fire started, but the O'Learys were the scapegoats and got a lot of bad treatment after the fire (126).

The fire spread from the O'Learys' barn to the yards nearby. Soon it was spreading throughout the neighborhood. William Lee, a neighbor a block away, saw the fire and ran to Bruno Goll's drugstore to turn in the fire alarm. Bruno Goll refused to turn in the alarm because he said the fire truck had already gone past. So instead of arguing, Lee went home to his family. At the courthouse the lookout on duty saw smoke, but thought nothing of it, thinking it was just Saturday's fire and there was no reason to be alarmed. Then he looked up and noticed it was a different fire and had his assistant strike the Box 342 for the fire department. Soon fire trucks were at the scene and attempted to put out the fire. The fire department's Chief Marshal, Robert A. Williams got the engines to circle the fire to contain it. They got as close to the fire as they could until their arm hair was being burned and their clothes started to smolder (26-34). But there was no stopping the fire and it kept moving because of the strong wind. At around three in the morning the water supply stopped when the waterworks burned down (Cromie, 87). People were running for safety, families were split in all the chaos and some were killed. Chicago's mayor, Robert B. Mason sent telegrams to the surrounding cities telling them of the fire and to send their whole departments. Fire fighters came to offer support from Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Dayton, Louisville, Detroit, Port Huron, Bloomington, Springfield, Janesville, Allegheny, and Pittsburgh (Murphy, 85). Monday morning the fire was still going and people now began to see the effect it had had. Then at about eleven at night it began to rain. The fire was now contained and could be put out by the firefighters.

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