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Chicago burns

This Day in World History

October 8, 1871

Chicago Burns

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.

Aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, 1871.

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Recent Comments

  1. Printimine

    Thank you for providing such great articles everyday about history of America. Here is some additional information regarding “Chicago burns” that could be useful for others, and could measure the destruction.

    “Eventually it was determined that the fire destroyed an area about four miles (6 km) long and averaging 3/4 mile (1 km) wide, encompassing more than 2,000 acres (810 ha). Destroyed were more than 73 miles (117 km) of roads, 120 miles (190 km) of sidewalk, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings, and $222 million in property—about a third of the city’s valuation. Of the 300,000 inhabitants, 90,000 were left homeless. Between two and three million books were destroyed from private library collections.”

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