Sunday, October 10, 2021

‘Everything went wrong’ — the Great Chicago Fire at 150

     I volunteered for this one. Working on a book about Chicago history, of course I noticed the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire was looming, and poked my bosses, months ago. Not something a newspaper wants to forget. My approach was dictated by a single fascinating—to me anyway—fact, the one that begins the story. From there, the structure of passing the narrative from witness to witness presented itself. I knew that my piece would appear after the Tribune had been hammering on the fire for weeks, and hoped to provide something fresh and different. 

     The summer of 1871 was terrible for Mary Todd Lincoln. Her adored younger son, Tad, 18, died in July, a month when no rain fell in Chicago, the city where the slain president’s immediate family moved after leaving the White House in 1865. Mrs. Lincoln, a woman heavily veiled in black who “suffered periods of mild insanity,” lived with her only surviving son, Robert, a lawyer, on South Wabash Avenue. By autumn, she sank even deeper into anguish.
     “As grievous as other bereavements have been, not one great sorrow ever approached the agony of this,” she wrote to a friend on Oct. 4.
     And then the city burned down around her.
     One hundred and fifty years after the Great Chicago Fire, much about the epochal event that recast our city and its people is unfamiliar to current residents. Not one person in a hundred knows Abraham Lincoln’s widow lived here and endured the calamity, while the one thing many believe they do know about the fire, that it was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern, is a baseless ethnic slur, a scrap of mocking calumny preserved in amber like an insect’s leg, surviving all efforts to dislodge it. Even though universally agreed to be untrue, or at least unsupported by any evidence, the lie endures.
     The most common causes of fires, the Chicago Fire Department had reported the previous March, were not cows or lanterns, but defective chimneys, carelessness with flame, and arson. There had been an average of four fires a day in Chicago the first week of October, started by tossed cigars, mischievous boys and oily rags bursting into flame.
     This was a city heated by coal, lit by gaslight, strewn with hay. The sidewalks and even some fire hydrants were wooden. Blistered by drought, “the dust was almost intolerable, the ground became parched,” wrote Chicago Theological Seminary student William Gallagher. “A furious wind from the southwest had been blowing steadily all day Sunday.”
     Whatever the cause, the fire certainly started in the barn behind the home of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary and their five children at what was then 137 DeKoven Street, on the city’s near Southwest Side. The hardworking O’Learys already had gone to bed. And they didn’t own a cow; they owned five, plus a horse and a calf. A drayman named Daniel Sullivan, out enjoying the evening, saw fire through the cracks between the boards of the O’Leary barn.
     “Fire! Fire! Fire!” he shouted.
     Sullivan went in the barn and untied the cows, thinking they would save themselves. They didn’t. He dragged the calf outside, badly singed.
     Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, a 20-year-old reporter on the Chicago Evening Post, arrived almost immediately, about 9:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871, to find himself in a part of town he had never visited before.
     “I was at the scene in a few minutes,” he later recalled. “The land was thickly studded with one-story frame dwellings, cow stables, pigsties, corncribs, sheds innumerable; every wretched building within four feet of its neighbor, and everything of wood — not a brick or a stone in the whole area. The fire was under full headway in this combustible mass before the engines arrived, and what could be done?”
     The fire engines — steam pumpers, drawn by teams of brawny horses — were delayed because the alarm was slow being turned in. A pharmacist refused the alarm box key to a resident who’d seen the fire. Mathias Shafer, the night watchman in the Cook County Courthouse tower, saw the orange glow but thought it was light from the gas works. When he did send an alarm, he sent the firemen to an address a mile and a half from the fire.
     Later asked to describe what went wrong, one fireman would reply: “Everything went wrong.”

To continue reading, click here.


  1. The Stockyards survived the 1871 Fire, but then they burned in 1934.
    And from what I've read, that fire had the city officials terrified.
    The weather was the same as in 1871, no rain for months & the Stockyards were wooden pens filled with a lot of dried cow dung, which really burns easily.
    I've never been able to find out if the following is true, that they had already loaded much of Milwaukee's Fire Department onto rail cars & that the New York Central Railroad was clearing a track from NYC to Chicago & that there were going send a huge amount of NYC's Fire Department here.
    But like in 1871, it rained & helped contain the fire.

  2. There's been a lot of coverage of the Fire this year but this is definitely superior. Mary Lincoln, Mother Jones, Gen. Sheridan, etc. A remarkable read, very fresh, indeed.

  3. Great article, NS , and well researched. PBS had a good documentary on the fire. The Mrs. Lincoln info that you bring up is a real surprise.

  4. Excellent piece, Neil, As informative as longer books on the subject. Most books cover rebuilding the City but not the people who moved here in the aftermath. My fathers side, as far as I have learned, first arrived in 1872. Two other brothers, including my great-grandfather, came in 1873 and beyond. I assume that post-fire opportunity could have been a driver, or possibly another relative or acquaintance from Kilkenny. Whatever the reason, without their emigration the SunTimes would have one less subscriber.

  5. I knew about Mrs. Lincoln and her troubled life because there is a statue of her in a Racine park just a few blocks from where I grew up. She lived there for a short time when her some was attending college.

    The Great Chicago fire gets most of the publicity for obvious reasons, but the same- day Peshtigo fire was by most measures the greater tragedy. A vast area was burned over and some 2000 killed compared to 300 in Chicago.


    1. The town of Peshtigo has a fire museum that is quite intense. My first wife's grandmother lived in Sturgeon Bay, on the Door Peninsula. Not far away from her former home was a monument that listed the names of 77 fire victims. Many of them were found in a well, where they had died while trying to escape the heat and flames.

      The Peshtigo firestorm conditions were closely studied by the American and British military during World War II, in order to learn how to recreate similar firestorms during bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan. Their efforts proved successful in Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, and other targeted cities.

  6. Chicago-born, lived half my life in the city of my birth, and lifelong Chicago history junkie. So I thought I knew a lot about the 1871 Fire, but I did not know that Abraham Lincoln's widow survived the disaster. Nor did I know that "Mother" Jones was also a fire survivor, or that her lifelong career as a union organizer and crusader began in Chicago. Thanks for the heads-up, Mr. S--I have learned so much at EGD.

  7. I also didn't know about Mrs. Lincoln. You always provide enlightening information, Neil.

  8. Just as in the OpEd piece on the fire, one theme in your work that is often overlooked is how, in spite of the city’s progress, the rich got richer and poor got poorer.
    Sullivan should have addressed that as well in his otherwise great work on city planning.

  9. Just started "The Burning of the World: The Great Chicago Fire and theWar for the City's Soul" (released last week) by Scott W. Berg. Not too far into it, but the first part of the book deals heavily with exhausted firemen, over-used and failing equipment, and inadvertent confusion in the first attempts to control the fire. Can't wait to see how it ends. ;-)


This blog posts comments at the discretion of the proprietor.