What started as a small spark , possibly in a barn, ignited one of the most destructive and largest catastrophes, in Chicago’s history. The Great Chicago fire of 1871 is still a mystery. MAny have speculated, pointed fingers, and taken blame for the devastating fire that destroyed hundreds of acres, took many lives, and charred the Windy City to ashes. The truths to what really happened on that late night on the eighth of October may never be unravelled. Many do however feel that the evidence suggests that it was an accidental or a freak of nature and environmental conditions fueled the fire into rage letting it get out of control.
The raging fire of almost 145 years ago still has scientists baffled, and remains a mystery today. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is an iconic story because there are many theories of how the fire actually started. The Great Chicago Fire is presumed to have started in the barn on the property of Catherine O’Leary, an irish immigrant. The Great Chicago Fire spread quickly over more than 2,000 acres causing widespread damage. There were more than 200 lives lost. There were also 17,000 buildings and structures destroyed as a result of the fire.
This widespread damage left 70,000 residents of Chicago homeless. It was extremely devastating because homes, buildings, farm animals, and ultimately the lives of many citizens were lost in the scorched area. The massive fire spread to one of the richest residential areas of Chicago on Michigan Avenue and 23rd Street. When the firefighters finally got to the home of Mrs. O’Leary the fire was so bad they could not put it out. With the fire spreading and more people and buildings becoming nonexistent in the city people started leaving their homes to escape the incoming laze from the fire. When people returned to their homes and saw that there was nothing left it demoralized them and cost them time and money to have to move or rebuild. Octo Horace White, a resident of Chicago and editor-in-chief of the Chicago Tribune wrote a letter of his eyewitness account of the fire to Murat Halstead, editor of the Cincinnati Commercial. Horace says that because of the frequent fires the days leading up to ober 8th, and the bells ringing so frequently he thought that it was just another fire that would be taken care of.
He then goes on to explain that the fire was different from others that he had seen in the previous eighteen years that he had lived in Chicago. With the fire spreading, “I dressed myself for the purpose of going to the “Tribune” office to write something about the catastrophe. Once out upon the street, the magnitude of the fire was suddenly disclosed to me. ” He here sees the amount of destruction that the fire caused. It is then he realizes the amount of damage to the city when he gets out on the roads. All of the accounts that Horace references are experiences that he had had.
Many residents were scared and fled with their belongings. The whole city got whatever they could and made for safety. Horses, cars, and people were all in the streets, making for the outskirts of the city in chaos. The Chicago Fire of 1871 has been just like many other fires. The fire could have started in many ways, but the real reason for the start of the fire is still unknown. Fires were not uncommon in Chicago because the city was made of mostly wood, the climate was dry and windy. All of these conditions led to all of the fires in Chicago starting and spreading.
The fire that broke out on Sunday, October 8, had similar characteristics to those previously occurring in Chicago. The difference this time was the devastation and damage caused before the fire could be extinguished. The fire had spread so much that firefighters had a hard time containing it into a small area. Once roofs started to collapse the fire was so out of control that firefighters could not put it out or try and stop the spread of the fire. Firefighters could not move water fast enough to the fire to extinguish it so the fire spread and continued spreading until there was a little rain that came in days later.
The Chicago Historical Society states that “The first [problem] would be the amount of wood all around, whether in the great stacks of raw lumber in yards along the South Branch of the Chicago River, the 57 miles of wood-paved streets (out of a total of 88 miles of paved streets in all, leaving almost 450 miles unpaved altogether) and 561 miles of wooden sidewalks, and the tens of thousands of wooden or wood-trimmed structures. ” With all of this wood in the city and the dry conditions, the whole city was at risk of a disaster.
Having 561 miles of wooden sidewalk and thousands of wooden buildings and other structures made a real safety hazard for the residents of Chicago. There are many theories on what actually occurred to start this fire on that late October eighth evening in 1871. The most widely accepted theory behind the great fire, places blame on a spooked cow. Other theories conclude that Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan, a neighbor, started the fire in the barn. Others however would like to place blame on a meteor shower, Biela’s comet. Most recently scientists have described The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 as an electrical phenomena.
The theory that is most accepted is the theory of the cow in the O’Leary barn that kicked over the lamp. It is believed that Mrs. O’Leary was milking her cows on that evening when the cow became spooked and kicked over a lantern in the barn. The lantern then sparked and ignited the hay, coal, and wood shavings that were being kept in the barn. The theory is most accepted because after the fire subsided the fire department could see that the fire originated in the O’Leary barn. Guilt was placed on Mrs. O’Leary even though she pleaded that she was not in the barn and asleep when the fire began.
Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan was the one who contacted the fire department about the blaze and took with the side of Catherine O’Leary as her alibi. Mrs. O’Leary was finally exonerated 100 years after her death. In 1921 reporter Michael Ahern admitted that he concocted the cow story to increase sales of the Chicago Tribune. While looking at the evidence, the theory of the cow does not seem to be all that far out of reach. However, with Mrs. O’Leary’s name cleared suspicion turned to Pegleg himself. Richard Bales’ research places blame on Sullivan, the man who first reported the fire.
Bales believes that Sullivan’s story does not hold up to a mapped out plot of the scenario. Bales believes that Sullivan was near the barn, possibly smoking his pipe when it sparked and a fire started. Unable to extinguish the fire Bales concocted a cover up story. Mapping out of his story proves that Sullivan could not have been where he said he was and still have view of the fire. He also claims he entered the engulfed barn in attempt to free the animals and then escaped unharmed. Given the the time frame and the fact Sullivan has a wooden leg, Bales says there is no credibility to him being able to escape unharmed.
While the meteorite theory is known, it is not as widely accepted or believable as the cow and lamp, or that of “Pegleg”. It has recently sparked scientists interest and this possibility is being re-investigated. Another theory is that a meteorite hit just outside of Chicago causing the fire to start. The Discovery Channel reported “on its website in March a presentation by Robert Wood, a retired McDonnell Douglas physicist, who theorizes fragments of a comet discovered in the early 1820s possibly caused the fires. ” Although this is plausible, according to Boston Globe meteor strikes only happen five to ten times a year.
The meteor theory for this reason is possible, however with strikes only happening five to ten times a year it has been difficult to determine this is likely the cause. Comet Biela, the comet said to start the fires, was split into two different pieces. The impact of the blast then was said to have sent pieces hurling towards Earth. It was said that these comet fragments had a high concentration of highly combustible chemicals. When the comet fragments hit the Earth, they exploded on impact starting many fires, not just the Great Chicago Fire.
On the same evening, spontaneous combustion followed by unexplainable fires were also raging in Wisconsin and Michigan. Proponents of this theory cited eyewitness reports of “the descent of fire from the heavens, a great ‘tornado’ of fire rushing across the landscape and tearing buildings from their foundations, descending balls of fire, a rain of red dust, great explosions of wind accompanied by blasts of thunder, and buildings exploding into flame where no fire was burning. ” As scientists continued researching the theory of Biela’s Comet, the idea of an electrical phenomena was discovered.
This gained much attention from the media and the Discovery Channel. Physicists and aeronautical engineers continued investigating the effects of a comet entering the Earth’s atmosphere. If Biela’s Comet or a fragment of this comet truly entered Earth’s atmosphere this could have caused the appearance of descending balloons of fire. Research has established” comets discharge carbon compounds that would be flammable in the Earth’s oxygen atmosphere.
Gaseous balls of fire would combine with various weird manifestations of megalightning… near the Earth, ball lightning could be expected, iven the extreme electrical conditions-and the presence of ball lightning is surely the plausible explanation for descending ‘balloons’ with the power to incinerate objects they strike. ” Based on this, electrical discharges could ignite any flammable material. The most significant part of this mystery is that still nobody knows what really caused the Great Fire that devastated Chicago. People are still searching for the real reason that the Chicago Fire started and many still believe that it was the cow in the O’Leary barn. Anything could have started the fire from smoke to a spark landing on something flammable and setting the city ablaze.
It was also theorized, “that small pieces of frozen methane, acetylene or other high combustive materials hit the earth sparking the flames. ” Is it a matter of coincidence that fires engulfed cities in three different states? How about the fact that all three of these fires were hot, fast moving, and raged out of control within minuted? Even though no credible cause has been determined, all of these fires occurred around the same time a large meteoroid passed through the Earth’s atmosphere.
The author of The Comet and The Chicago Fire states: “It is highly unlikely that we will ever have definitive knowledge of the cause f the fire. In any case, the more intriguing issue is not the unresolvable one of whether the O’Leary legend has any truth to it, but why it has attracted so much continuing interest and why to the present day the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow is above all others the one “fact” that almost everyone near and far recalls about the Great Chicago Fire. ” One thing is for certain, The Chicago Fire of 1871 has become a focus and gained national attention with organizations like National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Each of these organizations implemented fire safety and building procedures to protect individuals. October is known as Fire Protection month due to all of the fires that occur in the month. The ” OSHA Standards require employers to provide proper exits, fire-fighting equipment, emergency plans, and employee training to prevent fire deaths and injuries in the workplace. ” After these fires legislation was also passed that changed building codes. Fire-proof materials like brick or stone were requirements for building constructions. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is still a mystery. Mrs. O’Leary’s name and her cow have been cleared.
There is little evidence to support any of the theories. One thing is for sure, the once small town was able to pick up the pieces and rebuild itself. It has sparked great interest and has caused great advances in the growth of the nation. The Legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow will live on in spirit and song. Maybe someday scientific evidence will prove why the small town became engulfed in flames. Until then: Late one night, when we were all in bed, Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in the shed. Her cow kicked it over, Then winked her eye and said, “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight! “