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John R. Chapin’s engraving of Chicagoans fleeing across the Randolph Street Bridge during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

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‘Everything went wrong’ — the Great Chicago Fire at 150

A century and a half after the fire that transformed Chicago and the people in it.

John R. Chapin’s engraving of Chicagoans fleeing across the Randolph Street Bridge during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
| Associated Press

The summer of 1871 was terrible for Mary Todd Lincoln. Her adored younger son, Tad, 18, died in July, a month when no rain fell in Chicago, the city where the slain president’s immediate family moved after leaving the White House in 1865. Mrs. Lincoln, a woman heavily veiled in black who “suffered periods of mild insanity,” lived with her only surviving son, Robert, a lawyer, on South Wabash Avenue. By autumn, she sank even deeper into anguish.

“As grievous as other bereavements have been, not one great sorrow ever approached the agony of this,” she wrote to a friend on Oct. 4.

And then the city burned down around her.

One hundred and fifty years after the Great Chicago Fire, much about the epochal event that recast our city and its people is unfamiliar to current residents. Not one person in a hundred knows Abraham Lincoln’s widow lived here and endured the calamity, while the one thing many believe they do know about the fire, that it was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern, is a baseless ethnic slur, a scrap of mocking calumny preserved in amber like an insect’s leg, surviving all efforts to dislodge it. Even though universally agreed to be untrue, or at least unsupported by any evidence, the lie endures.

The most common causes of fires, the Chicago Fire Department had reported the previous March, were not cows or lanterns, but defective chimneys, carelessness with flame, and arson. There had been an average of four fires a day in Chicago the first week of October, started by tossed cigars, mischievous boys and oily rags bursting into flame.

This was a city heated by coal, lit by gaslight, strewn with hay. The sidewalks and even some fire hydrants were wooden. Blistered by drought, “the dust was almost intolerable, the ground became parched,” wrote Chicago Theological Seminary student William Gallagher. “A furious wind from the southwest had been blowing steadily all day Sunday.”

Whatever the cause, the fire certainly started in the barn behind the home of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary and their five children at what was then 137 DeKoven Street, on the city’s near Southwest Side. The hardworking O’Learys already had gone to bed. And they didn’t own a cow; they owned five, plus a horse and a calf. A drayman named Daniel Sullivan, out enjoying the evening, saw fire through the cracks between the boards of the O’Leary barn.

“Fire! Fire! Fire!” he shouted.

Sullivan went in the barn and untied the cows, thinking they would save themselves. They didn’t. He dragged the calf outside, badly singed.

The cottage of the O’Leary family, at what was then 137 DeKoven Street. The Chicago Fire Department later built its training academy on the site.
The O’Leary family home, at what was then 137 DeKoven Street. Though the Great Chicago Fire started in the barn behind their home, the winds blew the flames away from them, so their cottage survived the blaze. The Chicago Fire Department later built its training academy on the site.
A.H. AbbottPhotographer, via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, a 20-year-old reporter on the Chicago Evening Post, arrived almost immediately, about 9:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871, to find himself in a part of town he had never visited before.

“I was at the scene in a few minutes,” he later recalled. “The land was thickly studded with one-story frame dwellings, cow stables, pigsties, corncribs, sheds innumerable; every wretched building within four feet of its neighbor, and everything of wood — not a brick or a stone in the whole area. The fire was under full headway in this combustible mass before the engines arrived, and what could be done?”

The fire engines — steam pumpers, drawn by teams of brawny horses — were delayed because the alarm was slow being turned in. A pharmacist refused the alarm box key to a resident who’d seen the fire. Mathias Shafer, the night watchman in the Cook County Courthouse tower, saw the orange glow but thought it was light from the gas works. When he did send an alarm, he sent the firemen to an address a mile and a half from the fire.

Later asked to describe what went wrong, one fireman would reply: “Everything went wrong.”

The alarm didn’t really matter, however. Firemen at a firehouse 11 blocks away saw the smoke and sent three pumpers, along with firemen who were already exhausted. The largest of 28 fires the previous week had been the night before, a huge blaze at the Lull and Holmes Planing Mill, 209 S. Canal St., that broke out about 11 p.m., burning up 7 million board feet of lumber and four blocks between Canal and the river.

It was 4 a.m. Sunday when that was finally gotten under control, and the firemen dragged themselves home to bed. Or didn’t. This being Chicago, they’d later be accused of celebrating their victory over the massive fire and arriving to the O’Leary home hung over or even still drunk.

Whatever their condition, they got busy. The strategy of firefighting then wasn’t so much saving burning buildings — a challenge with primitive equipment — but keeping fires from spreading from one building to another by soaking unburnt structures, or creating fire breaks, pulling down dwellings, or blowing up blocks in the fire’s path.

“Hang on to her, boys!” yelled Robert Williams, the chief fire marshal, as the head of the department was called. “She’s gaining on us.”

Clark Street, looking north from Harrison Street, after the fire.
Clark Street, looking north from Harrison Street, after the fire.
J. Paul Getty Museum

‘Stand it as long as you can’

Chicago’s fire department had gone from volunteer to professional only 13 years earlier. Since then, Williams, who joined in 1848, had been begging the city for more resources, especially a fireboat. In vain. Also for more men; firefighting was hard, physical work.

“Marshal, I don’t believe we can stand it here,” one of the firemen said.

“Stand it as long as you can,” Williams replied.

But the fire leapt into the wind — strong enough to blow off a man’s hat — and flanked them. “Fire devils” — flaming vortexes — rose off the burning buildings, spun over the firemen’s heads and set fire to buildings a block away, on Taylor Street. The fire was so intense, it twisted their leather helmets out of shape.

“The heat was awful, ’twas like hell,” Williams testified later, insisting his men had not been drunk. “The fireman’s eyes were red with the dust and fire, so that many of them were most blind. The hair was scorched off their faces, and they stuck to their machines like bull dogs and worked until they couldn’t stand it any longer. Yes sir, and they did stagger, for they were clean beat . . . They were tired, too, from the fire the night before, and then to give the same men such a long pull again, why an iron man couldn’t have stood it.”

Residents of the area — called West Division, being west of the river’s southern branch — hurried toward the fire to watch. So many onlookers, they interfered with the work of the firefighters, who turned their hoses on the crowd, trying to disperse it. Add to that people in the path of the fire dragging their possessions into the street, trying to save them, and soon the area around the fire became blocked.

Across the river, in what is thought of now as the Loop, but then was South Division — south of the Chicago River’s main branch — residents were confident the river would protect them. Those who noticed a glow to the west shrugged and went to bed. Just another fire. But they didn’t sleep long. By midnight, the wind took a flaming board and flung it onto a building at Adams and Franklin.

Then, as now, this was the city’s commercial heart, home to hotels, banks, government offices, plus grand emporiums like Field, Leiter & Co., train depots, warehouses and grain silos. Employees tended to live nearby, and hurried to their workplaces. One bank clerk loaded $1.6 million into a trunk and headed for the lakefront. Another took $600,000 in a case and paid a wagon driver $1,000 to take him to the station.

The ruins of Field, Leiter & Co.’s store, at State and Washington streets.
The ruins of Field, Leiter & Co.’s store, at State and Washington streets.
The J. Paul Getty Museum

The night clerk at the seven-story Sherman House alerted five elderly women who lived there and got them on a cart. He thought. As it rolled away, he realized there were only four women on the cart. He raced back into the burning building, grabbed a fire axe and broke down the door of the last sleeping woman, soaked her dress with a bedside pitcher and conveyed her through the burning halls.

Three among thousands

At the Sheridan House, one guest who tried to sleep and failed was John R. Chapin, an artist for Harper’s Weekly, perhaps the most prominent publication in the country. He awoke to commotion in the hall.

“Listening for a few moments, and thinking it must be near morning, I composed myself to sleep again, but was restless, and my mind became gradually filled with a dread for which I could not account,” he later wrote in Harper’s. “At length, to assure myself, I rose and went to the window, threw open the blinds and gazed upon a sheet of flame towering 100 feet above the top of the hotel, and upon a shower of sparks as copious as drops in a thunder-storm. Niagara sinks into insignificance before that towering wall of whirling, seething, roaring flame, which swept on, on — devouring the most stately and massive stone buildings as though they had been the cardboard playthings of a child ...”

Alongside the large institutions in South Division were smaller shops and private homes. At 119 Dearborn was the residence of John Jones. Let the flames illuminate a person who should be familiar to Chicagoans, but isn’t, a man declared “the most prominent” Black resident of Chicago by the Chicago Tribune.

Only about 1% of Chicago was Black in 1871. The Great Migration wouldn’t begin for 50 years. Jones had arrived in Chicago in 1845 with $3 in his pocket. He had been born free in North Carolina, but his white father died, and the man’s heirs conspired to enslave him. So Jones fled to Illinois, first to Alton, then Chicago, where he set up a tailoring business and thrived. He used his success to fight the Black Laws, Illinois codes restricting the rights of Black residents.

Washington Street in downtown Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Washington Street in downtown Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
The J. Paul Getty Museum

Jones’ home became a hub of the Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglass was a houseguest, as was the wild-eyed abolitionist John Brown. Both Jones’ house and his business were destroyed, though the Black section of town — 39 homes and four churches in the 1870 census — would be largely unscathed.

Another Jones, Mary Harris Jones — no relation — was a white dressmaker who ran a shop on Washington Street. She had lost her four children and husband to the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1867 and come to Chicago to start anew. Now she fled with thousands of terrified Chicagoans — the city population was about 337,000, roughly an eighth of today’s.

What to leave, what to save

Many faced the agonizing decision of what to try to save, then where to flee with it. Those in West Division fled west, toward the open prairie. Those in South Division fled east, to the lakefront, or south, pursued by the fire.

“Everybody was going in the same direction. Men, women and children loaded with everything you can conceive were blocking up the sidewalks,” Gallagher, the divinity student, wrote, in a 40-page letter to his sister. “Two strings of teams loaded up several stories high were hurrying westward towards the open prairie, and we stopped to see what they were carrying. Here comes a woman with all her bed and bedding on her back. Here was a little girl with her arms full of cooking utensils . . . One man was hurrying along with nothing but a flatiron in his hand, another had two or three pieces of old board, and so they went, hurrying, pushing, scrambling, crowding, jostling, shouting and laughing even.”

That last sentence sounds two common themes in accounts of the fire. Chicago’s poor did not typically leave records of their thoughts and activities. But the upper class did. And after recounting their own difficult decisions over what to save from their fine homes — financial documents, a portrait of a child, one man saved a scrapbook of his letters to newspapers — they often would pause to smirk at the nonsensical trifles the poor thought to take, forgetting that the flatiron that man carried might have been his wife’s livelihood. Poor people were described again and again carrying odd junk, as well as becoming unhinged, hysterically jubilating the fire, while the well-off handled the crisis coolly.

“Among those rich people I didn’t see one woman rushing about screaming and [w]ringing her hands. There was no crying or bewailing,” Gallagher wrote.

The remains of the Grand Pacific Hotel, on the block bounded by Quincy, Clark, Jackson and LaSalle. The hotel was rebuilt after the fire.
The remains of the Grand Pacific Hotel, on the block bounded by Quincy, Clark, Jackson and LaSalle. The hotel was rebuilt after the fire.
J. Paul Getty Museum

Then there was sin.

South Division contained “two or three blocks of pine rookeries,” known as Conley’s Patch, a vice district, and many accounts include descriptions of the prostitutes, barflies and fancy men, driven from their lairs, staggering amidst a foretaste of their eternal damnation.

“Ill-omened and obscene birds of the night were they. Villainous, haggard with debauch and pinched with misery, flitting through the crowd, collarless, ragged, dirty, unkempt,” wrote Elias Colbert. “Women, hollow-eyed and brazen-faced, with foul drapery tied over their heads, their dresses half-torn from their skinny bosoms, and their feet thrust into trodden-down slippers, moved here and there, stealing, scolding shrilly and laughing with one another at some particularly ‘splendid’ gush of flame or ‘beautiful’ falling in of a roof.”

Don’t believe everything they say they saw

You don’t need a master’s degree in sociology to detect a note of derision in that, and to wonder about its accuracy. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow is a warning, largely ignored, to view accounts of the fire with a certain degree of skepticism. The bovine arsonist can’t be the only fabrication. Victorian sensationalism runs through many stories — the woman kneeling in the middle of the street, clutching a crucifix, praying while her splayed dress burns. The nameless arsonists busily setting new fires, even as the city blazes, then later being hung en masse for it, though there is no evidence either situation actually occurred.

Yes, bartenders rolled barrels of whiskey into the street. Yes, the fire was met with chaos, lawlessness, looting, theft, robbery and a general sense that the end of the world had come. But those events were then colored by a lens of preconception.

The Victorians idealized childhood, for instance, and accounts are rich with girls running, their golden tresses aflame. “Hundreds” of separated children wailing for their parents. The fire was immediately viewed as a morality tale, filtered through class biases. Alexander Frear, a New York politician, was in town, and claimed he saw a “ragamuffin on the Clark-street bridge, who had been killed by a marble slab thrown from a window, with white kid gloves on his hands and whose pockets were stuffed with gold-plated sleeve buttons.” An arresting scene, until you pause to wonder how Frear knew what was stuffed in the urchin’s pockets. Maybe he used his imagination. Maybe he rifled through them. He was, after all, a politician.

Not that children didn’t find themselves separated and in trouble, as first-person accounts demonstrate. Claire Innes was 12. She and her father were part of a crowd trying to cross the Clark Street bridge. The bridges were choke points for South Division residents desperate to escape the flames.

“People began turning and pushing against us,” she later wrote. “There was no resisting the crush and we were swept along . . . I felt as a leaf in a great rushing river . . . The wind was terrible, like a storm, and filled with cinders and fire. I held up my hands to keep them from my eyes . . . When I turned, I could not find Father or Mother or my sister or brothers. I ran down the sidewalk after them, calling their names and searching everywhere for a familiar face. They were gone — into the smoke and dark and falling fire.”

Claire ended up trapped in an alley, fire cutting off her escape at both ends. She cowered under a pile of bricks, prayed and waited and didn’t find her family for two days.

The ruins of St. Joseph Church after the Great Chicago Fire.
The ruins of St. Joseph Church after the Great Chicago Fire.
J. Paul Getty Museum

A similar trial awaited Bessie Bradwell, 13, who donned her favorite dresses in layers before she left home with her parents — her mother grabbing the cage with the family’s pet bird as they left, unable to abandon it to the flames. Her mother and brother sought refuge at the lakefront, but her father, James Bradwell, a county judge, went to his office by the courthouse in an attempt to save his rare law books. Bessie went with him. It was also the offices of the Chicago Legal News, which her mother, Myra Colby Bradwell, had founded in 1868. The first woman to pass the Illinois Bar Exam, Myra Bradwell had been thwarted from becoming a lawyer by the bias of the time. Bessie picked up the heavy ledger recording the names and addresses of subscribers.

“‘This is a good thing to save, and I will take care of it,’” she recalled herself saying, years later. But in the confusion outside, she lost her father and fled on her own, strangers occasionally patting out fires from flying embers that had sprung up on her coat.

Judge Bradwell found her mother and brother on the lakefront.

“Where is Bessie?” were his first words.

“Why, I thought she was with you,” her mother replied.

“My father was sure I was dead,” the younger Bradwell remembered. “My mother, who was always an optimist, said ‘No, I’d trust that girl to go the ends of the earth — she’ll come out all right, don’t you worry.’”

Heroes, villains, victims

Accounts of the fire alternate between heroism and criminality. Residents load their possessions onto wagons, only to have them driven off by thieves, who themselves must toss away the loot they’d just stolen to save themselves. Some cartmen make heroic efforts to save family treasures; others charge outrageous fees, then ask for more two blocks away. Some Chicagoans ran into burning buildings to aid those trapped. Others looted the buildings as they burned. Several women described clutching boxes of their jewels, only to later hurl them away in their flight. Residents sometimes had time to bury prized possessions in their gardens — even stoves or pianos — and that strategy sometimes worked. Circuit Court Judge Lambert Tree was able to save his family silver that way, his only possessions to survive the fire.

At the courthouse, smoke filled the basement jail, and 150 prisoners screamed to be let free. But the jailer, who had received no orders, refused. Finally, the mayor sent instructions — the murderers were chained together and led north, while the rest were simply released. “They evinced their gratitude by pillaging a jewelry-store nearby,” an 1872 account observed.

The burned-out Cook County Courthouse after the Great Chicago Fire.
The burned-out Cook County Courthouse after the Great Chicago Fire. It stood where the City Hall/County Building is now, on the block bounded by Washington, Clark, Randolph and LaSalle.
J. Paul Getty Museum

The courthouse was on the block bounded by Washington, Clark, Randolph and LaSalle, exactly where the City Hall/County Building stands today. By midnight, Mayor Roswell Mason was there, sending desperate telegrams to cities across the Midwest, requesting aid.

Across the street, Philip Sheridan was also busy telegraphing. The Civil War general had his headquarters here, managing the wars out West against Native Americans. (Originally based in St. Louis, he found that city too “forlorn” and moved to Chicago where, among other advantages, horses were cheaper.) Sheridan put out requests from the Army for tents and supplies. He also took charge of blowing up structures to create a fire break in the South Division, and the fire didn’t go much beyond Harrison Street.

Chapin, the Harper’s artist, positioned above the Randolph Street bridge, felt himself “a second Nero” watching the mass of humanity struggling below, eventually producing a dramatic lithograph. Historians generally remark on there being no photographs of the actual fire, but fail to add that this shouldn’t be surprising. There were no photographs of Civil War battles taking place either. It isn’t just that the cameras were bulky, but that they required long exposures. Those depopulated scenes of devastation might actually have had people in them, but they didn’t stand still long enough to be preserved on the film of the time.

The courthouse bell, 5 feet tall, pealed continuously until shortly after 2 a.m., when it broke free, plunging through the blazing tower, falling into the basement. If anybody within miles was still sleeping, that woke them.

By then, the fire had leapt the Chicago River again, into the North Division, where there were many stately homes, the Water Tower and the waterworks. Lill’s Brewery caught fire first. The fire was slow in catching hold, but train cars with kerosene exploded, and soon the fire was moving north faster than a person could run.

Image of a painting of the Great Chicago Fire by Edgar S. Cameron.
Image of a painting of the Great Chicago Fire by Edgar S. Cameron.
Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum

Survivors of the fire invariably spoke of how loud the conflagration was, the stupendous roar of the flames, the cries of fleeing residents, exploding barrels, crashing masonry, that tolling courthouse bell and terrified animals everywhere. A pet store burned before anyone thought to save its occupants, its birds and monkeys shrieking horribly within.

The hay used to feed horses flew aloft in pillow-sized chunks, the rain of burning debris so intense that John Tolland, keeper of the water intake crib 2 miles off shore, had to battle to keep the structure from burning, wetting it with buckets. The upside was he had all the water he needed. The downside was, if he failed, there was no escape. The choices would be to burn to death or drown.

The fire swept north as far as Lake View, then a separate town, on the way destroying the waterworks, ending the losing efforts of firemen altogether by cutting their supply of water. Chief Williams was so shocked — it was supposed to be fireproof — he raced to confirm the fact himself then, in a lapse of self-interest that can be understood and perhaps forgiven, dragooned a squad of firemen to rescue the contents of his own home.

The Water Tower, at the base of Chicago Avenue, was, at 182 feet, the tallest structure in Chicago. It was scorched, but did not burn, though more buildings burned in the North Division than in the other two parts of town combined. Residents took refuge at the Sands, the beach north of the river, and in Lincoln Park, which was a Civil War cemetery in the process of being relocated. That only 300 people died — perishing in their beds or pushed off jammed bridges and drowned, or crushed by buildings collapsing into the street — was credited to the city’s layout, which encouraged flight.

“They had reason to thank the flat topography, and the square, open plan of the city for their delivery from being roasted by thousands in the flames,” Colbert wrote.

Early Tuesday morning, the rain came, only 30 hours late. William Gallagher, who had traded his Bible for a police badge, deputized to patrol the smoldering West Division after the fire had moved east, exulted to the heavens.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” he shouted, hearing the rain, though immediately pausing to contemplate the “awful night for the people on the prairies.”

Almost 18,000 buildings were destroyed. Some 100,000 — nearly a third of the population — left homeless.

The Water Tower was among the few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire.
The Water Tower was among the few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire.
J. Paul Getty Museum

Recover, rebuild, renew

The task of recovery began immediately. Mayor Mason established martial law, and while Chicagoans took great comfort in the presence of General Sheridan and his troops, violence was minimal and arson illusionary. After an Army sentry shot a lawyer returning home late at night, the military was withdrawn.

William Kerfoot put up a hovel and painted a famous sign: “W.D. Kerfoot Real Estate: All Gone but Wife, Children, and Energy.” Money and supplies and skilled workmen were arriving before the ashes cooled. In that loss were seeds of progress, for the city and for many living in it.

For instance, Mary Jones, the Memphis seamstress, who joined the refugees crowding the beach.

“The fire made thousands homeless,” she remembered. “We stayed all night and the next day without food on the lakefront, often going into the lake to keep cool. Old St. Mary’s Church at Wabash Avenue and Peck Court was thrown open to the refugees and I camped there until I could find a place to go.”

Next door, the Knights of Labor held meetings. Jones attended those meetings and became one of the countless Chicagoans whose lives were changed by the fire in unexpected ways. She would eventually become a familiar figure at union rallies and strikes, a fiery orator, always dressed in black in memory of her lost husband and children. Workers would call her “Mother Jones.”

Mary Jones survived the Great Chicago Fire, was inspired to become active in a burgeoning labor movement and eventually became known as “Mother Jones.”
Mary Jones survived the Great Chicago Fire, was inspired to become active in a burgeoning labor movement and eventually became known as “Mother Jones.”
Sun-Times file

“From the time of the Great Chicago Fire I became more and more engrossed in the labor struggle,” she later wrote. “I decided to take an active part in the efforts of the working people to better the conditions under which they worked and lived.”

The other Jones, the tailor John Jones, continued his push to influence the city that gave him freedom. That November, he ran on the Fire-Proof Ticket and was elected a Cook County commissioner, thus becoming the first Black elected official in the state of Illinois.

Like most common wisdom, the idea that it was the fire that boosted the city on to greatness is an oversimplification. Chicago was a boomtown, growing fast in size and reputation before it burned. “I wish I could go to America if only to see that Chicago,” Otto von Bismarck, then chancellor of the North German Confederation, had told Sheridan during his inspection tour in 1870. The Union Stockyards, and the bulk of the city’s manufacturing and business base to the South and West, were untouched. It was still the hub of rail traffic for the country, still a port.

Chicago’s rise from the ashes was complicated. The Panic of 1873 halted most major construction here for half a dozen years. Though even that calamity was not without benefit; it was the Panic, not the fire, that sent architect Louis Sullivan to Chicago.

The fire certainly cleared out the old city, leaving a blank slate for the creation of modern architecture.

The Union Stockyards, shown in 1948, were untouched by the Great Chicago Fire.
The Union Stockyards, shown in 1948, were untouched by the Great Chicago Fire.
Sun-Times file

A major reason aid flowed so swiftly was Chicago’s reputation as a striving, hardworking town, thus in the Victorian mind worthy of charity in tough times. That calculus was applied to Chicago residents by the various boards and committees set up to distribute the world’s largess. Generally, relief was handed out based on who you were, not what you needed, and like sympathy, it tended to flow more to those who lost a lot, rather than to the most downtrodden who actually needed help. You had to deserve the help you got.

In England, a band of famous writers — Robert Browning, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Lord Tennyson — spearheaded an effort to rebuild the public library which they assumed Chicago had, and therefore had lost. In fact, there was no public library in Chicago but, receiving the donated books, the city was shamed into starting one, stuck in an abandoned water tank, starting a tradition of jamming our main library branch into odd public spaces.

Southern cities also sent scorn. Still bitter over losing the Civil War, they saw the fire as divine retribution for Sherman’s burning of Atlanta, or for the city’s notorious vice dens and saloons. “Chicago will never be like the Carthage of old,” one New Orleans paper opined. “Its glory will be of the past, not of the present, while its hopes once so bright and cloudless will be to the end marred and blackened by the smoke of its fiery fate.”

Most of the city’s Black homes were spared, enough that some would later say among themselves that the fire was divine punishment for the sins of white people. Though that perspective would be tested in the “Little Fire” of 1874 that gutted their community and a dozen blocks downtown.

All manner of deeds, tax rolls and official records were lost. Much early history of the city. Two janitors tried to save the original handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln had sent to the Chicago Historical Society to be used to raise funds during the Civil War. They reached it, wrapping it in a flag, but lost their bundle escaping the burning building.

General Sheridan also lost his papers and diaries, making his memoirs much harder to write, as he had to go by memory. But Chicago softened the loss in several ways: Sheridan married a local woman, half his age, and fans bought them their house when they moved to Washington, D.C., and later erected a statue of him alongside the major lakeside road named in his honor.

A statue of Gen. Philip Sheridan stands on Belmont Avenue, near DuSable Lake Shore Drive and Sheridan Road, named in the Civil War general’s honor.
A statue of Gen. Philip Sheridan stands on Belmont Avenue, near DuSable Lake Shore Drive and Sheridan Road, named in the Civil War general’s honor.
Sun-Times file

Joe Chamberlin, the young Evening Post reporter first on the scene, would rise to become editor of the Chicago Times before moving back East to a successful career in newspapering, interviewing every president from Ulysses S. Grant to Warren G. Harding. He also met 9-year-old Helen Keller, and became her lifelong friend.

Myra Bradwell would flee to Milwaukee with the subscriber ledger her daughter Bessie had lugged for nine hours and publish her Chicago Legal News without interruption. Her quest to become a lawyer would not be as successful, meeting its end in 1873 with Bradwell v. Illinois, an 8-to-1 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. “The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother,” Justice Stephen J. Field wrote. At least the bird she rescued “lived to a good old age.”

Bessie Bradwell, by the way, did “come out all right,” just as her mother predicted. She graduated first in her class at Union College of Law (later Northwestern Law School). By then, unlike her mother, a woman could become a lawyer, and she did, also serving as assistant editor of Chicago Legal News after her mother’s death in 1894, and editor-in-chief for 20 years, until her own death in 1927.

Like Chicago, Robert Lincoln’s business interests were boosted by the fire. His home on South Wabash was beyond the burnt district, and while his office was destroyed, the vault was secure. Even losing his office proved to be a boon; lawyers whose buildings were intact invited those displaced by the fire to share their premises, and in this way Lincoln met Edward Swift Isham. They became partners in 1872, and their firm, Isham & Lincoln, was prominent in Chicago for over 100 years, until 1988.

Mary Todd Lincoln, photographed in Washington, D.C. by Mathew Brady in January 1862
Mary Todd Lincoln, photographed in Washington, D.C., by Mathew Brady in January 1862
Sun-Times file

The fire loosened Mary Todd Lincoln’s faltering grip on reality. She became terrified of fire and would point at smoking chimneys and declare the city was burning down. She stored her trunks at the Fidelity Safe Deposit Company, to protect them from the next conflagration, and once, on a premonition, sent them to Milwaukee for safekeeping. Her doctors warned her son that a woman in her condition might suddenly leap out the window, believing the house was ablaze. Robert Lincoln began legal proceedings against his mother, who was declared insane in 1875 and committed to Cook County Hospital.

The fire is often credited with improving the city’s zoning and building codes but, like Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, those were often more convenient fiction than significant fact, as much ignored as honored. Strict fire codes didn’t stop the Iroquois Theater from opening without fire ladders — upper-floor fire doors led out to nothing but a fatal plunge — or accessible exits or working fire suppression equipment backstage. About 600 people died when the Iroquois burned in 1903, making it the deadliest building fire in United States history until 9/11. Whatever other lessons the Great Chicago Fire taught, the importance of fire safety wasn’t one of them.

Not that people didn’t try. The International Fire Marshals Association time their Fire Prevention Week to coincide with the anniversary of the fire. This year it runs Oct. 3 through 9 and its theme, ”Learn the Sounds of Fire Safety,” encourages people to know the difference between fire alarms and carbon monoxide alarms.

In a show of whimsy unusual for a municipal entity, in 1961 the Chicago Fire Department opened its fire academy on the spot where the O’Leary cabin stood. The O’Leary home was untouched by the fire, incidentally, since the wind blew the flames northeast from the barn, and the cottage was to the south. Some think this irony stoked resentment against them, and there can be little doubt the O’Leary slur will be passed on forever.

If you’d like to mark the 150th anniversary in a setting that owes its existence to the fire, you might consider a picnic in Grant Park. The area was a lagoon between Michigan Avenue and lakefront railroad tracks and became a convenient place to dump rubble from the burnt district. The park stands on that landfill, with the crushed remnants of the fire still underneath. Workers on a ramp to Lake Shore Drive in 2016 dug up charred bricks, timber and ash buried there since the fire. Upon such ruins a great city grew.

Markers both inside and outside the Chicago Fire Department’s training academy, 558 W. DeKoven St., recall the history of the facility’s location
Markers both inside and outside the Chicago Fire Department’s training academy, 558 W. DeKoven St., recall the history of the facility’s location.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times
The Chicago Fire Department’s training academy, 558 W. DeKoven St., now stands where the Great Chicago Fire started.
The Chicago Fire Department’s training academy, 558 W. DeKoven St., now stands where the Great Chicago Fire started.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

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