“It was like a snow storm only the flakes were red instead of white”
At 9 p.m October 8, 1871, a small fire that started in a barn would quickly become one of the most historical events in Chicago’s history. This year marks the 141st anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. Historians have researched the events surrounding the fire for a number of years. They believe the fire originated in a Mr. and Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. Although legend states the fire was started when their cow kicked over a lantern the cause of the fire has never been determined. More importantly though a series of miscommunications by guards and a late notification to the fire department allowed the small fire to grow unchecked and finally consume 34 blocks of the city.
Fires at that time were common throughout the city. Chicago was the fastest growing city in the country and fire protection had not kept pace with the unchecked expansion. The unforeseen risk of using mostly wood to construct a majority of the buildings would prove to be devastating. Other factors worked against the firefighters of Chicago on those fateful days: A major drought that year had dried buildings and surrounding materials, and the famously strong south west winds of the 'Windy City' were also responsible in quickly spreading the fire toward the city center.
The fire burned for three days and was finally snuffed when a light rain washed over the city. In that time, the deadly path of the fire had destroyed an area about four miles long and 3/4 mile wide, encompassing more than 2,000 acres. Lost to the inferno, were more than 73 miles of roads, 120 miles of sidewalk, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings, and $222 million in property (about 3 billion dollars in today's economy). The final sum turned to ash about a third of the city's valuation. Of the 300,000 inhabitants, 100,000 were left homeless.
After the fire, the city recovered 125 bodies. Final estimates of the fatalities range from 200–300, considered a small number for such a devastating fire. In later years, other disasters would claim many more lives, but The Great Chicago Fire remains Chicago's most well-known disaster, both for the magnitude of the destruction and for the city's recovery and growth afterwards. Chicago is reminded of this historical event by the second star in the city flag which commemorates the fire.