The Great Conflagration That Swept Through Chicago

The Great Conflagration That Swept Through Chicago

The summer of 1871 was a time of widespread conflagrations across the United States. Fires raged over vast areas in the lumber districts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, in the woods of New York State, and in many cities from the Atlantic seaboard to San Francisco. The Midwest had suffered greatly from a record-breaking drought; only 1 ½ inches of rain had fallen in 14 weeks.

In the evening of October 8, there swept over the village of Peshtigo, Wis., a tornado of fire which left 1,054 counted dead in Peshtigo and the lumber camps around Green Bay, a locality directly north of Chicago.

The meteorological conditions which prevailed over the whole Lake Michigan area made Chicago a city for burning and at 9:30 p.m. on the day of the great catastrophe at Peshtigo the spark was lighted which touched off the conflagration which has since been known as the Great Chicago Fire.

In 1871, the City of Chicago, with a population of 335,000, covered a built-up area of 6 miles long and 2 miles wide west from the Lake Michigan shore line. It was the industrial, commercial and cultural center of the Midwest, surpassing all cities west of the Appalachians and rivaling the great eastern metropolises. Chicago had already displaced St. Louis in fourth rank among the cities of America and was rapidly overtaking Brooklyn in its progress toward third place.


What Building and Fire Codes Tell Us

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Fire Marshal Robert A. Williams, chief officer of the Chicago Fire Department who directed the operations of the memorable 40 hours that followed the discovery of the fire, made the following official report, a most complete and concise statement of the awesome conditions which confronted the department:

The Saturday night fire

“During the six days previous to the great fire the department had responded to 27 alarms and had worked on 24 fires. Then on October 7 occurred the great conflagration known as the ‘Saturday night fire’ which required the services of a great portion of the apparatus for at least 14 hours. This fire was finally extinguished through the great exertions of the officers and men of the department. This fire destroyed four squares of buildings, including two lumber yards, several mills, factories, etc.

“The great fire occurring October 8, 9 and 10 is without parallel in the history of the world, and to attempt to make a correct statement or record of the circumstanoes attending it, would be an impossibility.

“From investigations by the Board of Police it was ascertained that the fire originated in a small frame structure located in the rear of No. 137 DeKoven Street, owned and occupied by Mr. Thomas O’Leary as a cow stable. The fire commenced at about 9:30 p.m. A strong southwesterly wind was blowing at the time; no rain had fallen for several weeks previous, consequently all combustible matter was prepared for combustion. The origin of the fire could not be definitely arrived at, but from all circumstances connected with the case it is believed to have been set through the careless action of some person, or persons, at present unknown.

“All of the apparatus responding to the first alarm were soon upon the ground; the second and third alarms were given in succession almost instantaneously, bringing the whole department, but of little avail. Considering the difficulties the department had to encounter on that dreadful night, the officers and men worked with an energy seldom seen. They had just passed through a severe fire 24 hours previous, and all companies were worn out from hours of hard labor when they were called to this fire more dreadful than the one they had just dealt with.

“The alarm was struck from Box 342 at 9.30 p.m. Steamer No. 6 was the first to arrive, as the watchman of that company discovered the fire before the alarm was given, which when given indicated a wrong location.

When the error was discovered a general alarm was sounded and meanwhile Chicago had been doomed, for when the engines in force reached the fire it was beyond control.”


Fire jumps river

Thirty-two blocks of buildings on the West Side had already been reduced to ashes when, at about 11.30 p.m., the report was made to Chief Williams that the fire had jumped the South Branch and that two large fires some distance apart were lighting up the South Division. Most of the companies were then ordered to the South Side, but little effective fire fighting was possible and from that time until the fire eventually burned itself out on the North Side, the heroic efforts of the crippled and exhausted department could accomplish little in the way of checking the racing, raging inferno.

The course of the fire was northward and westward, the flames spreading with incredible swiftness. Large firebrands, some reported to be several feet in length, were whirled through die air for distances up to more than a mile, starting new fire centers long distances from the main fire front, and quickly uniting to involve the whole commercial, banking and hotel center of the city. The splendid buildings crumbled as the sea of flames passed through and over them, and soon the heart of the citv was in possession of the fire king. Early in the morning of the 9th, three engine companies arrived from Milwaukee by railroad and were put to work on the North Side along the river. With the assistance they gave the Chicago firemen, several blocks were saved adjacent to the river as far north as Ohio Street.

Department organization

At the time of the Great Fire the Chicago Fire Department, which had been established as a full-paid force in 1858, consisted of 17 engine, four ladder, six hose and two hose elevator (the first elevating platforms) companies, and had a force of 219 men who worked continuous duty without any time off except for meals. With few exceptions the officers and men were “husky, strapping young buckos, capable of licking their weight in bobcats.” The CFD in 1871 was an efficient, hard-working fire fighting organization. Four of the men, before they retired, attained the top rank of fire marshal, and not less than a dozen became chief officers in the ranks of chief of battalion and assistant marshal.

All but two of the steam fire engines were less than six years old, five of them being of the largest size and drawn by four-horse teams. There were also 24 hose tenders and three ladder trucks in service at the Great Fire, the apparatus of Hook and Ladder Company 1 having been lost at the “Saturday night fire.” Two of the steamers had also been disabled at that fire and these engine companies responded to Box 342 on Sunday night with their hose tenders only.

Engine 6, first at the O’Leary fire, had worked 22 hours at the “Saturday night fire” and had returned to quarters just one hour before being called to the blaze on DeKoven Street. The foreman of No. 6 was William H. Musham, who became head of the department in 1901 and whose son, H. A. Musham, was the compiler of “Notes on the Chicago Fire and Notes on the Weather at the Time of the Chicago Fire,” papers in the archives of the Illinois Historical Society. Quotations in this story are from these papers by Musham.

The number of buildings destroyed in the Great Fire has been estimated at from 18,000 to 25,000, with a property loss of more than $200,000,000. The life loss was given as 250.

When we remember that at the time of the 1871 conflagration the Chicago department was on a continuous-duty basis and that the entire department had worked for at least 12 hours, and several companies throughout Sunday, on the “Saturday night fire,” we must marvel at what they did during the 40 hours of terrible duty at the Great Conflagration—a bright page in the history of a great fire department.

Originally ran in Volume 122, Issue 10.