The Great Chicago Fire begins on this day in 1871. It goes on to kill 250 people, leave 100,000 people homeless and destroy thousands of buildings. All told, the fire was responsible for an estimated $200 million in damages (more than $3 billion in today’s money), approximately one-third of the city’s entire worth. At the time, slightly more than 300,000 people lived in Chicago, which was quickly becoming a transportation hub for goods and people traveling between the East Coast and the burgeoning frontier.
The fire began near the home of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary at 137 De Koven Street in southwest Chicago at about 9 p.m. Legend holds that the fire started when the family’s cow knocked over a lantern, but it is unknown whether this is actually true. What is known is that within 90 minutes, the fire was completely out of control and rapidly moving toward the city center.
Blinding hot ash and dust swirled as the blaze grew—at its height, it was as much as a mile wide. The winds were so strong and unpredictable that firefighters found it virtually impossible to establish safe positions from which to battle the blaze. Lake Michigan proved to be the only thing that could halt the fire as it raced four miles west. The fire continued to burn wildly throughout the following day, finally coming under control on October 10, when rain gave a needed boost to firefighting efforts.
Of the 18,000 buildings that were destroyed by the fire, the most notable was the city’s courthouse, which had cost over $1 million to build. The Field and Leiter department store was also lost, with an estimated $2 million of merchandise inside.
The fire prompted an outbreak of looting and lawlessness. Five companies of soldiers stationed in Nebraska and Kansas were summoned to Chicago and martial law was declared on October 11, ending three days of chaos. The military stayed for two weeks restoring order. Meanwhile, refugees filled the beaches of Lake Michigan, waiting until they could safely return to the city.
The following month, Joseph Medill was elected mayor after promising to institute stricter building and fire codes, a pledge that may have helped him win the office. His victory might also be attributable to the fact that most of the city’s voting records were destroyed in the fire, so it was next to impossible to keep people from voting more than once.