Genealogy Trails

Chicago Fire
October 8-9, 1871

FAST FACT: Chicago averaged about two fires a day in the year leading up to October 8, including twenty fires in the preceding week. The weather conditions were extremely dry, and coupled with the gale-force winds that were blowing that day, the city never had a chance.

"It was at 9.45 o'clock on Sunday night, October 8, when the bell sounded the alarm from box 342, for a fire which proved to be the most disastrous in the world's history. Flames were discovered in a small stable in the rear of a house on the corner of De Koven and Jefferson streets. Hardly had the first alarm sounded when it was followed by another from the same box, and this in turn by a third, or general alarm, which summoned to that vicinity every available steam engine in the city." ("History of the Great Chicago Fire", published 1871)

Starting in the cow barn at the rear of the Patrick O'Leary cottage at 137 DeKoven Street on Chicago's West Side. By midnight the fire had jumped the river's south branch and by 1:30 a.m., the business district was in flames. The fire continued northward across the main river through the early morning hours. All day Monday the fire burned, making it as far as Fullerton Avenue. Rainfall which started about midnight helped put out the last of the flames.

The blaze took a heavy toll: 300 Chicagoans dead; 90,000 homeless; property loss valued at $200 million.

. - "The city steadily grew in beauty, population and commercial importance until 1871. On Oct. 9 of that year occurred the "great fire" the story of which has passed into history. Recuperation was speedy, and the 2,100 acres burned over were rapidly being rebuilt, when, in 1874, occurred a second conflagration, although by no means so disastrous as that of 1871. The city's recuperative power was again demonstrated, and its subsequent development has been phenomenal." Source" "Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois", 1901

Pictures from
The Day after the Fire
October 10, 1871


fire picture 1

fire picture 2

fire picture 3

fire picture 4

fire picture 5


Newspaper Stories from around the country:


A great fire broke out in Chicago on Sunday night in the southern part of the city. The wind was blowing a gale from the south and carried the fire through the heart of the city for miles. Thousands of buildings are destroyed; among them are all the banks, the railway depots, the Courthouse, the Waterworks, and the principal hotel and stores, six grain elevators and a multitude of private dwelling houses.
In the central portion of the city the buildings are of stone, but in the other parts chiefly wood, and the street pavements are also wood. The telegraphs being deranged, it is difficult to get particulars.
One-half of the city is burnt, including the entire business section. The fire is still raging. Efforts have been made to stop the flames by blowing up buildings with gunpowder, but ineffectually. There being no supply of water, the firemen are powerless. The loss is estimated at $500,000,000.
The Mayor of Chicago is sending to other cities for aid and food for the destitute numbers of people being homeless. There is great excitement throughout the country, and aid has been sent from Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Detroit. The President has ordered food and clothing to be distributed from the military store in Chicago.

The burnt section of Chicago covers upwards of two square miles in the heart of the city. It extends from Twelfth -street northwards. Everything has been burnt from the lake shore inland nearly one mile. The fire is still raging, but firemen from other places are arriving and checking its progress towards south and west. 100,000 people are homeless. Many have been killed. Aid is being sent from all quarters.


The --- (unreadable) at Chicago was this morning believed to have been extinguished by the heavy rains of last night, but the telegraph wires were then broken, preventing the arrival of direct intelligence. The news came through St. Louis.
In the course of the day a telegram from Chicago was received. It says the fire burnt all night in the northern part of the city, but at noon was under control.
General Sheridan has telegraphed from Chicago that the fire has destroyed almost all that was very valuable in the city.
The rains continue.
Shipments of provisions are going forward from Pittsburg, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.
There was a panic in trade circles and in the stock markets of New York, consequent upon the losses. The shareholders in insurance companies are depressed and anxious. The loss if thought to be about $100,000,000. There has unhappily been great loss of life.

The great fire at Chicago began in a stable on Sunday night. A boy took a kerosene lamp into the stable in order to milk a cow. The animal kicked the lamp over, which set fire to the place. The burning fluid ran on to the wooden pavements, and caused an extension of the disaster.
The people became crazy with excitement, and many were trampled to death, others were burnt. The loss of life is estimated at 500.
Several incendiaries were caught yesterday, and were either shot or hanged.
The money loss is estimated now in Chicago at $300,000,000.
The fire is now extinguished in the southern part of the city, whence these reports come. Indirect reports from St. Louis state that the fire is still burning in the northern part, while crowds of starving people threaten a riot.
The Chicago Tribune and Journal expect to be able to issue a small sheet to-day.

Michael Ahern Also “Nails” Yarn That Owner Has Just Died In Michigan
BY MICHAEL AHERN. (Veteran Fire Reporter)

The story printed in some evening paper that Mrs. O’Leary, owner of the cow that kicked over the lamp which set fire to Chicago, is dead near Menominee, Mich., is slightly erroneous. It is too bad to spoil a good story, but for the sake of history the “error” should be corrected.

Mrs. O’Leary (God rest her soul) has been dead these twenty years past. I was at her funeral. She was the mother of James O’Leary, commonly known as “Big Jim, the stockyards gambling king.” I knew the old lady well, and often bought milk of her before the fire.

In respect to her memory I wish to refute the cow and lamp canard. Her cow did not kick over a lamp in the stable where the fire originated.

Recalls Old Time Reporters.
At the time of the fire I was police reporter for the Morning Republican, which later became the Inter-Ocean. Johnny English was THE TRIBUNE’s police reporter and Jim Haynie was on the Times. Both of them are dead. I am the only police reporter living who helped to cover the greatest fire in the world’s history.
It was Jim Haynie, I think, who “faked” the story about the cow kicking over the lamp. No newspaper was printed the morning of Oct. 10, but when the papers were able to get out “extras” the cow and lamp story was given as the cause of the holocaust.

Combustion Believed Cause
Now, as to the cause of the fire that destroyed 17,000 buildings, entailing loss of $2000,000,000, made 100,000 people homeless, and cost the lives of about 300:
In after years I met O’Leary and we talked about the fire. He told me that in his opinion it was caused by spontaneous combustion of hay. A couple of weeks before the fire O’Leary had put a ton of green hay in the barn loft. It was an unusually warm, dry spell of weather. Everything was parched. The hay, while curing, took fire from the terrific heat that beat upon the roof, and that was what laid Chicago in ashes.
(source: Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) January 21, 1915 - Submitted by Src #96)

Escanaba, Mich., Jan. 20.—A son of Mrs. O’Leary tonight denied his mother was the owner of the cow that is said to have kicked over a lantern and started the Chicago fire in 1871.
(source: Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) January 21, 1915 - Submitted by Src #96)

For more detailed information, visit these websites concerning the Chicago Fire:

The Great Chicago Fire & The Web of Memory - presented by the Chicago Historical Society & the Trustees of Northwestern University.

Read the
Chicago Tribune's reporting of the event on October 11, 1871

Return to the Main Index Page for Cook County

©Kim Torp and Genealogy Trails