This Day in World History
October 8, 1871
In 1871, Chicago was enjoying a boom. In just four decades, the city had expanded thirty-six times in size and more than twenty times in terms of population. At eight o’clock at night on October 8, 1871, all that growth started to go up in smoke when a fire broke out in Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn. Winds were strong that night in the Windy City, and the city itself was largely made of wood—not just the buildings, but even the sidewalks and signs. Every structure served as kindling, and the ferocious fire burned out of control for thirty-six hours, not stopping until it had destroyed 18,000 buildings over an area of three-and-a-half square miles. Three hundred people lost their lives in the fire, and a third of the city’s people were made homeless.
The city of the big shoulders quickly went to work to rebuild itself. New building materials arrived on the scene on October 10, the day the fire was finally put out. Though that first delivery was wood, other materials would arrive in the future, as Chicago became home to steel-supported skyscrapers. The rebuilt city kept growing and in 1893 celebrated its triumph over the fire by staging a famous exhibition in honor of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.