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Major American Fires: Great Chicago Fire- 1871

The Great Chicago Fire: Introduction

Image by John R. Chapin, originally published in an 1871 issue of Harper's Weekly

The Great Chicago Fire, which burned from October 8-10, 1871, destroyed 3.3 square miles of the city, killed around 300 people, and left 100,000 people homeless. The fire originated in or around a barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O'Leary; according to legend, the fire started in the barn when a cow Catherine O'Leary was milking kicked over a lantern. This story has been disproven, and the actual cause of the fire remains unknown. The fire spread quickly due to drought conditions and strong winds, and the city's primarily wooden buildings and sidewalks burned readily.

Primary Sources

A number of books about the fire were published in the months proceeding it. These books provide a fascinating glimpse of contemporary perceptions of the fire and its aftermath. Some place the fire in a broader context by chronicling the history of Chicago up to that time. Others document the donations and relief efforts extended to the city by individuals and municipalities from around the U.S. and around the world. Some also include discussions of fire science as it was understood at that time.

They are now in the public domain and have been digitized by libraries.