The Great Chicago Fire and the unimaginable destruction seen through rare photographs, 1871


On the evening of October 8, 1871, over 300,000 exhausted residents of the great city of Chicago went to bed hoping for nothing more than a restful night's sleep after the usual Mondays of going to work or raising a family. . Instead, these unprepared citizens found themselves being chased by an inferno that ran into the waters of Lake Michigan or drifted away on the open prairie north and west of the city.

The people of Chicago were driven out of their city by one of the most devastating fires the world has ever seen, an event known in history as "The Great Chicago Fire".

The wall of flames roared and rumbled with a terrible noise. Burning debris rose into the air on hurricane-like winds. The fire was so strong that it literally pricked the heels of those who fled from it. The fire destroyed the entire building within minutes.

From the night of October 8 to the morning of October 10, the Great Chicago Fire burned the entire city, claiming more than 2,600 acres (1,052 ha). In the end, the Great Fire destroyed 18,000 buildings, from the humble huts of the poor to the finest brick and marble houses of the rich.

Banks, stores, hotels, rail depots, courthouses, gasworks, waterworks, government buildings, newspaper publishing houses, opera houses, theatres, salons, restaurants, schools and churches, nothing can stand in its way.

Huge lumber mills, grain elevators, coal yards, breweries, warehouses and factories of all kinds burned to the ground. Priceless works of art, museums and libraries were consumed. Countless pets, wild animals and livestock were lost.

Astonishingly, less than 300 people were killed in the fire. But later, more than 90,000 people were left without shelter, food, water, or any valuables other than the clothes they wore, which they managed to take with them at the last minute.

People saw someone, or something, to blame for: advancing anarchists trying to overthrow the government; irresponsible firefighters who were drinking; And, most famously, Mrs. O'Leary's cow who knocked down an oil lantern, set the barn on fire. None of these are true. The sad fact is that Chicago was a city just waiting to burn down.

The fire is said to have started around 8:30 pm. On October 8, in or near a small barn belonging to the O'Leary family, bordering the back alley at 137 DeCowen Street. The shed next to the barn was the first building to be consumed by fire.

City officials never determined the cause of the fire, but a long drought in the summer of that year was caused by the rapid spread of the fire, strong winds from the southwest and rapid destruction of the water pumping system, mainly causing extensive damage. Explains the structure of the wooden city.

The spread of the fire was aided by the use of the city's wood as the principal building material in a style called the Balloon Frame. At the time of the fire, more than two-thirds of the structures in Chicago were built entirely of wood, with most homes and buildings having highly flammable tar or shingle roofs. All the sidewalks and many roads in the city were also made of wood.

In 1871, the Chicago Fire Department had only 17 horse-drawn steam pumpers with 185 firefighters to protect the entire city. The initial response by the fire department was quick, but due to an error by the janitor, Mathias Schaefer, firefighters were sent to the wrong place, leaving the fire uncontrolled.

As more buildings succumbed to the flames, a major contributing factor in the spread of the fire was a meteorological phenomenon known as a fire vortex. As the warm air rises, it comes in contact with the cold air and starts producing a tornado-like effect. These whirlpools of fire probably carried the blazing debris so high and far away.

It started raining late in the evening of 9 October, but the fire had started burning itself. The fire had spread to the less populated areas to the north, devouring the densely populated areas as well.

In the days and weeks following the fire, monetary donations flowed into Chicago from home and abroad, along with donations of food, clothing and other goods. These donations came from individuals, corporations and cities.

The Great Chicago Fire gave rise to questions about development in the United States. Due to the rapid expansion of Chicago at the time, the fire made Americans reflect on industrialization.

Almost immediately, the city began to rewrite its fire standards, and soon Chicago developed into one of the nation's leading firefighting forces.

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