The Great Fire of Chicago, How The City Emerged Out of It By: Aishwarya Arige, CA

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

The Great Chicago Fire, taking place in 1871, was one of the largest disasters in American history. Practically overnight, the great city of Chicago was demolished. Before the fire, there was a large drought, causing everything to be dry and vulnerable to flame. Shortly thereafter, a fire broke out in the O’Realys’ barn and spread throughout the city. The fire took place for two days, October 8th through October 10th, 1871. Though after the flames died down, there were many more things to tend to. Many people were left homeless, starved, and, unfortunately, dead. While the fire was devastating, it laid the groundwork for rebuilding a stronger Chicago.


Chicago, Illinois was a very popular city in the early United States. Chicago was a center for trade due to the water sources running through it. The two rivers located in Chicago; the Chicago River, and the Des Plaines River, connected the city to the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan. Railroads through Chicago also helped it become a transportation hub in the United States. Thousands of immigrants, settlers, visitors, merchants, and tradesmen, saw the city as a great opportunity. By 1870, only one year before the fire, there were around 300,000 people living in Chicago. Because of the amount of dried wood, high density, and drought, Chicago was very susceptible to burn.


Different people have different theories on how the fire started. But, the main theory, and what majority of the people believe, is that the fire that would destroy a huge part of Chicago, ignited in a barn, owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. Though Mrs.O’Realy denied this charge, shortly after the fire began, a Chicago Replubican newspaper suggested that the fire was started when Mrs.O’Realy’s cow kicked a lantern over, causing the nearby hay to catch on fire.


Despite the fire’s devastation, much of Chicago’s infrastructure, including its transportation systems, remained intact. Reconstruction efforts began quickly, and spurred great economic development and population growth. Architects laid the foundations for building the world’s first skyscrapers. At the time of the fire, 1871, Chicago’s population was approximately 324,000. Whereas within 9 years, the city held about 500,000 Chicagoans! By 1890 Chicago was a major economic and transportation hub, with an estimated population of more than 1 million people! By 1893, the city hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, an attraction visited by some 27.5 million people.


For the most part, Chicago is a miracle. The city braved one of the most tragic and devastating natural disasters recorded throughout American history, and more than got through it. Today Chicago is one of the most known cities around America, and is a huge part of the United States’ economic system.


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