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The Great Chicago Fire was a conflagration that burned from Sunday October 8 to early Tuesday October 10, 1871. Hundreds of people killed by this fire. It also destroyed about four square miles in Chicago, Illinois. The fire was one of the largest U.S. disasters of the 19th century. However, the rebuilding began immediately and it successfully spurred Chicago's development into one of the most populous and economically important American cities.
The fire's origin
On October 10, 1871, the fire started at about 9 p.m. on Sunday in or around a small shed that bordered the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street.
According to the traditional account of the origin of the fire, it was started when a cow kicked over a lantern in the barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O'Leary. But in 1893, Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter and the creator of the cow story admitted that he had made it up because he thought it would make colorful copy.
The city's overuse of wood for building, the strong northwesterly winds, and a drought before the fire made the fire intense. Fatal errors were made by the city by not reacting immediately. Also the citizens showed laziness while overcoming the fire as soon as it began.The fire was so large and torturesome that firefighters were also exhausted from fighting a fire.
Spread of the blaze
The neighbors hurried to protect the O'Learys' house in front of the cowshed from the blaze as soon as the fire broke out. With only minor damage, they were successful in surviving the house. However, the the first alarm was not received by city's fire department until 9:40 p.m. when a fire alarm was pulled at a pharmacy.
The fire department was greatly responsible for the spread of the blaze. It was the sheer negligence of the guard on duty. Actually, the fire department was alerted when the fire was still small, but the guard on duty did not respond on time. He thought that the glow in the sky was from the smoldering flames of a fire the day before. With the blaze getting bigger, the guard soon realized that there actually was a new fire . He made another blunder by sending the firefighters in the wrong direction.
In 1956, the remaining structures on the original O'Leary property were razed for construction of the Chicago Fire Academy, a training facility for Chicago firefighters. In 1961, A bronze sculpture of stylized flames entitled Pillar of Fire was erected on the point of origin.
Questioning the fire
Catherine O'Leary was the perfect scapegoat. She was a woman, immigrant, and Catholic-?a combination which did not fare well in the political climate of the time in Chicago.
There was another possible explanation for the coincident conflagrations.According to that explanation winds associated with the approach of a low-pressure weather system promoted the spread of fires in an area that was tinder-dry due to a prolonged drought.
Three other major fires occurred along the shores of Lake Michigan at the same time as the Great Chicago Fire in that hot, dry and windy autumn.
Some 400 miles (600 km) to the north, driven by strong winds a prairie fire consumed the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin along with a dozen other villages.1,200 to 2,500 people were killed and approximately 1.5 million acres (6,000 km) were charred by this prairie fire.
In American history, the Peshtigo Fire remains the deadliest. It was little noticed at the time due to the remoteness of the region. Across the lake to the east, the town of Holland, Michigan and other nearby areas burned to the ground.
Some 100 miles to the north of Holland the lumbering community of Manistee, Michigan also suffered a tremendous fire.
In pop culture
Gary Larson's The Far Side comic strip jokes that the fire may have been started by secret agent cows.
In 2006, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, during a week in Chicago, featured a sketch in which Mrs. O'Leary's cow finally received justice for starting the fire: It was strapped to a bomb and given a chance to disarm it by cutting the blue wire. Sadly, cows are colorblind, so Mrs. O'Leary's cow was blown to bits.
Vince Vaughn makes many references to the fire in the 2006 film The Break-Up.
On his 2005 album Illinois, Sufjan Stevens sings "Oh great fire of great disaster" in "The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders" .
Frequently Asked Questions
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