1871 Great Chicago Fire

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The Great Chicago Fire was a conflagration that burned from Sunday, October 8, to early Tuesday, October 10, 1871, killing hundreds and destroying about 4 square miles (10 km2) in Chicago, Illinois.[1] Though the fire was one of the largest U.S. disasters of the 19th century, the rebuilding that began almost immediately spurred Chicago's development into one of the most populous and economically important American cities.

On the municipal flag of Chicago, the second star commemorates the fire.[2] To this day the exact cause and origin of the fire remain uncertain.



The fire started at about 9 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, in or around a small barn that bordered the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street.[3] The traditional account of the origin of the fire is that it was started by a cow kicking over a lantern in the barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O'Leary. Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter who created the cow story, admitted in 1893 that he had made it up because he thought it would make colorful copy.[4]

The fire's spread was aided by the city's overuse of wood for building, a drought prior to the fire, and strong winds from the southwest that carried flying embers toward the heart of the city. The city also made fatal errors by not reacting soon enough and citizens were apparently unconcerned when it began. The firefighters were also exhausted from fighting a fire that happened the day before.[5]

Spread of the blaze

The city's fire department did not receive the first alarm until 9:40 p.m., when a fire alarm was pulled at a pharmacy. The fire department was alerted when the fire was still small. When the blaze got bigger, the guard realized that there actually was a new fire and sent firefighters, but in the wrong direction.[citation needed]

Soon the fire had spread to neighboring frame houses and sheds. Superheated winds drove flaming brands northeastward.[citation needed]

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