Lithograph by Currier and Ives titled Chicago in Flames. Scene from the Chicago Fire of 1871.

From its humble beginnings as a settlement founded by the Haitian Afro-Frenchman Jean Baptiste Point du Sable in the late 18th century, Chicago experienced explosive growth in the 19th century to become a hub of American economic and industrial innovation and progress. As wars and the forcible removal of the region’s indigenous population opened up land for settlement, Chicago experienced explosive population growth and emerged as a major trade outpost in the first half of the 19th century. During the Civil War, Chicago was a hotbed of pro-Union sentiment and a key provider of equipment and personnel support for the war effort. After the war, people continued to flock to the city, seeking opportunity in industries such as food processing and meatpacking, manufacturing, and textiles. The city’s population more than doubled from approximately 112,000 people to nearly 300,000 in the decade prior to 1871. German, Irish, Scandinavian, and British Isles immigrants made Chicago a majority-foreign-born city. As one of the world’s commercial centers, Chicago was home to a large commodity exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade. Millions of dollars’ worth of goods were transported in and out of the city daily due to Chicago’s centrality in the country’s railroad networks, and the city’s massive working-class population and diverse industrial profile made it a hub for labor organizing and activism.

Illustration of the legend of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow kicking over a lamp to start the Chicago Fire of 1871, Chicago, Illinois.

On the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871, a small fire began in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, which was located behind their small cottage at De Koven and Jefferson Streets in the city’s West Division. The relatively minor fire might have been extinguished fairly quickly, however watchmen in the downtown fire tower triggered the wrong alarm, misdirecting the firefighters, who were already exhausted from battling a major fire the previous night. This, coupled with the hot and dry conditions that had plagued the city since July, caused the fire to grow rapidly. A strong southwest wind began carrying the burning embers from building to building. Soon, the fire had grown out of control, leaping across the Chicago River twice. In total, the fire would burn nearly three and a half square miles of the city, destroying approximately 18,000 buildings, leaving 100,000 people homeless, and claiming 300 lives before finally burning out on October 10.    

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 shows us how during and after a disaster people make choices that transform communities and impact themselves and others in lasting ways. Because of decisions made by individuals and builders, Chicago in 1871 was a highly flammable wooden city where fire was a constant threat. Because of the decisions made in fighting the fire, a combination of misfortune and human error caused it to spread out of control and take on a life of its own. Because of the decisions made by those placed in charge of the city’s recovery, people were not treated equally in the face of a humanitarian crisis.

Chicago had grown so rapidly in the middle of the 19th century that fire safety had not kept up with the population growth. Dwellings to house the influx of new arrivals were built entirely out of wood and tightly crammed onto small lots, with highly flammable materials used for roofing and insulation. The few paved streets and sidewalks that existed at the time were almost entirely made of wood covered in highly flammable coal tar. Many of the city’s main public buildings were wood-framed structures lacking fire blocking, a technique that prevented flames from running up the walls, with wood-carved ordination decorating their exteriors. Prominent voices, such as the Chicago Tribune, sounded the alarm about the potential for a devastating fire. Yet others believed that Chicago was prepared. While it was true that the city had made advances in fire preparedness, those advances proved inadequate during those three days in October 1871. 

Illustration of a bird’s-eye view of the city of Chicago on fire during the Fire of 1871. Looking west from Lake Michigan.

The response to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 revealed and reinforced social differences and inequalities. The large influx of immigrants into Chicago prior to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was a continuing source of social tension and resentment. Anti-immigrant sentiment was rampant, and the city was segregated along ethnic and class lines. Like many Chicagoans, the O’Learys were working people who survived on very little; Patrick was a day laborer and Catherine sold the milk from her cows. The O’Learys were also immigrants born outside of the United States. They and other non-white, non-protestant, and non-Anglo-Saxon residents were already marginalized prior to the fire. The same classist and nativist sentiments that divided Chicago before the fire made the scapegoating of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow possible, and even easy, afterwards.

Rather than use the recovery from the fire to create a more equitable society, those empowered to lead the efforts made decisions that deepened inequality. While the fire was still burning, on October 9, Mayor Roswell Mason established the General Relief Committee, consisting of public officials, aldermen, and some private citizens. However, two days later, Mason turned the city’s relief efforts over to the Chicago Relief and Aid Society (CRAS), a private organization led by the city’s business leaders. The leadership of CRAS successfully leveraged their business connections to assist the recovery, but there were downsides as well. CRAS took over the distribution of aid and treated working people with suspicion while going out of its way to assist more “refined” people. As a result of this approach, the inequalities that defined Chicago before the fire would increase, not decrease. CRAS applied its criteria of helping only the “industrious and deserving poor,” denying 40 percent of applications for capital aid and imposing work requirements for relief. The organization also purchased one-way tickets for nearly 40,000 families (approximately 157,000 individuals) to leave Chicago. 

By allowing our visitors to explore what decisions were made during Chicago’s recovery from the fire that produced inequitable outcomes, we at the Chicago History Museum will communicate how decisions made in response to future crises can either support and improve life for everyone equally or create and reinforce disparities between people and communities.

courtesy Chicago History Museum

How do you recover when you lose your home and all of your possessions? What was it like for Chicagoans to experience a disaster of such terror and scale? How does a community rebuild after being destroyed? Tragically, these were the questions survivors faced in the immediate aftermath of the fire, and these are the questions that people face from time to time in their own lives. The “City on Fire” exhibition will foreground the personal accounts of fire survivors like Julia Lemos, a widow who lived near Menomonee and Wells streets in the North Division of the city with her parents and five children. She processed her experience by writing her story and by creating the Memories of the Chicago Fire painting, both of which are a part of our collection. Learn the story of a young boy named Justin, whose family and pet goat survived the fire, an experience he documented in a letter and accompanying picture he mailed to a friend, which is a part of our collection as well. By exploring how fire survivors marshalled perseverance in responding to the challenges they faced, the exhibition will inspire visitors with a great historical example of resilience.

Disaster preparedness is an iterative process that must be done consistently in order to incorporate the latest advances in safety technology. This is how Chicago and the United States responded to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and other fires that have occurred throughout history. The 1871 fire, a second large fire that occurred in 1874, the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903, the St. Anthony’s Hospital Fire in 1949, the Our Lady of the Angels School Fire in 1958, and the McCormick Place Fire in 1967 each led to reforms in fire safety and prevention, albeit slowly and unevenly. Ultimately, Chicago has been extensively shaped by these fires, and lessons learned from each of them have shaped fire safety standards across the United States.

Broadside for Chicago Day at the World’s Columbian Exposition world’s fair, Chicago, Illinois, October 9, 1893.

Responding to a disaster is also a shared endeavor, in which the community in question creates a collective historical meaning for the event. This shared meaning then informs the collective response. Ultimately, Chicago responded by reconceptualizing its experience of the fire into a positive mythology of itself as a phoenix city that rose from the ashes and celebrated its achievement at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition on “Chicago Day” and beyond. These two events, the fire and the world’s fair, became so central to Chicago’s self-mythology that they were the first events commemorated on the city’s new flag when it was adopted in 1917. Furthermore, our extensive collection of fire relics, found and made souvenirs, books, poems, songs, and artistic representations will demonstrate to visitors how the fire lives on the city’s collective imagination. The Chicago History Museum exhibition concludes by asking visitors to think critically about what today’s challenges and problems are that must be met with resiliency and perseverance by each of us as individuals and together as a collective.