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October 10, 1871, a devastating fire broke out in Chicago, leaving the city in ruins. 17,500 houses were destroyed (including the town hall and the opera house), 90000 inhabitants were left on the roads and 300 lost their lives. Mrs Catherine O’Leary and her cow, Daisy, were found guilty of causing the disaster. The first was because she left an unattended gas lamp in the stable, and the animal because he kicked it and overturned it causing the fire. As ridiculous as this sounds many did believe this theory but it later turned out everything was a hoax, Catherine O’Leary and Daisy being innocent.

The city of Chicago Before the Fire

Representation of Chicago from 1850 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The summer of 1871 was very hot, and the city of Chicago suffered a brutal drought. From early July to the outbreak of the fire in October less than three inches of rain fell on the city, most of which was in short showers.

The heat and lack of sustained rainfall put the city in a precarious position as Chicago consisted almost entirely of wooden structures. Timber was plentiful and cheap in the American Midwest in the mid-1800s, something that Chicago took heavy advantage of.

However, this was never seen as much of a safety issue back in the day. Building regulations and fire codes were largely ignored. Large sections of the city housed poor immigrants in poorly built huts, and even the homes of more prosperous citizens tended to be made of wood.

A large city, practically made of dry wood in a prolonged drought fueled the fears of many of its residents. In early September, a month before the fire, the city’s most prominent newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, criticized the city for being made of “firetraps,” adding that many structures were “all fake and shingles.” Part of the problem was that Chicago grew rapidly and did not suffer a history of fires. New York City, for example, which suffered its own great fire in 1835, learned to enforce building and fire codes.

A few days before the fire, the weather presented itself to be quite unusual for the month of October, having highs of even 70 degrees Fahrenheit (22 celsius). This furthermore justifies just how dry everything was around, dry enough for the smallest spark to bring everything aflame.

The Aftermath of the Fire

Chicago in Flames, lithograph by Currier & Ives.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After all the chaos finished, the media was in need of a reason for this fire, even if there were over 1000 causes for the fire outbreak. Some of the newspapers at the time wrote stories that would seem incredible now, such as blaming the cause of the fire on a short meteor shower that happened overnight which ignited fires across the city.

The Tribune of Chicago was required to find someone to blame for all of the huge losses caused by the fire. The reporter which actually blamed Mrs. O’Leary and her cow was Michael Ahern who claimed that he saw the whole incident happen. Even to this day, many historians still question if Mrs. O’Leary and her cow caused the start of the fire. However, you can imagine that all the citizens of Chicago would not hesitate for a moment to question the reliability of the story due to how mad they were.

After the fire, the city was reborn from its ashes to a new and improved future — and in just a few decades it became one of the largest metropolises in the world. At the same time, it was necessary to reform the firefighting system, making Chicago one of the best-performing fire departments in the country, and a model for other states.

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