illustration of a city block on fire
Illustration by Gary Hanna

“This Is the End of Chicago!”

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

By Lauren Tarshis
From the October 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: to identify cause-and-effect relationships that appear in a narrative nonfiction article

Lexiles: 880L, 810L
Other Key Skills: : text structure, key ideas and details, cause and effect, author’s craft
AS YOU READ

Think about what put Chicago at risk for an enormous fire.

Thirteen-year-old Bessie Bradwell staggered through the burning streets, her heart pounding in fear. All around her, flames shot hundreds of feet into the air. Glowing embers and hunks of burning wood rained down.

It was October 8, 1871, and the city of Chicago, Illinois, was on fire. Already hundreds of buildings had burned to the ground. Thousands of people filled the streets, their screams rising over the crackling roar.

In the panic and confusion, Bessie had lost track of her parents and brother. Now, facing one of the worst disasters in U.S. history, Bessie was on her own.

Thirteen-year-old Bessie Bradwell staggered through the burning streets. Her heart pounded in fear. All around her, flames shot hundreds of feet into the air. Glowing embers and hunks of burning wood rained down. It was October 8, 1871, and the city of Chicago, Illinois, was on fire. Already hundreds of buildings had burned to the ground. Thousands of people filled the streets, their screams rising over the crackling roar.

In the panic and confusion, Bessie had lost track of her parents and brother. Now, facing one of the worst disasters in U.S. history, Bessie was on her own.

Pump Park Vintage Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

America in Motion

In the late 1860s, railroads connected the United States east to west for the first time.

High Hopes

Just hours earlier, Bessie had gone to sleep in her family’s elegant home near Lake Michigan. About a mile away, in a crowded neighborhood across the Chicago River, Catherine O’Leary, her husband, Patrick, and their five children were also sound asleep.

On the surface, the Bradwell and O’Leary families seemed to live in two separate worlds. Bessie’s father, James, was a judge who had been friends with President Abraham Lincoln. Bessie’s mother, Myra, fought for women’s rights during a time when American women weren’t allowed to vote or work in most professions. Barred from becoming a lawyer herself, Myra founded and ran Chicago Legal News, the country’s most successful newspaper for lawyers.

Unlike Bessie’s parents, the O’Learys did not have famous friends or impressive educations. Neither Catherine nor Patrick could read or write. Like tens of thousands of others in Chicago, they were immigrants from Ireland. Their modest, unpainted house had two rooms and one small window.

But both the Bradwells and the O’Learys were, in their own ways, flourishing. Like Bessie’s mother, Catherine O’Leary ran a growing business—a small dairy. Each morning she rose at 4 a.m. to milk the cows she kept in the family’s barn behind the house. She’d then load the fresh milk onto her horse-drawn wagon and deliver it to customers throughout the neighborhood. Both families were respected by those who knew them. Both were facing the future with high hopes—as was the city of Chicago itself.

Just hours earlier, Bessie had gone to sleep in her family’s elegant home near Lake Michigan. About a mile away, Catherine O’Leary was also sound asleep, along with her husband, Patrick, and their five children. They lived in a crowded neighborhood across the Chicago River.

On the surface, the Bradwell and O’Leary families seemed to live in two separate worlds. Bessie’s father, James, was a judge who had been friends with President Abraham Lincoln. Bessie’s mother, Myra, fought for women’s rights during a time when American women weren’t allowed to vote or work in most professions. Not allowed to become a lawyer herself, Myra founded and ran Chicago Legal News. It was the country’s most successful newspaper for lawyers.

Unlike Bessie’s parents, the O’Learys did not have famous friends or impressive educations. Neither Catherine nor Patrick could read or write. Like tens of thousands of others in Chicago, they were immigrants from Ireland. Their simple, unpainted house had two rooms and one small window.

But both the Bradwells and the O’Learys were, in their own ways, flourishing. Like Bessie’s mother, Catherine O’Leary ran a growing business—a small dairy. Each morning she milked the cows she kept in the family’s barn behind the house. She’d then load the fresh milk onto her horse-drawn wagon and deliver it to customers throughout the neighborhood. Both families were respected by those who knew them. Both families had high hopes for the future. As did the city of Chicago itself.

The Jay T. Last Collection of Graphic Arts and Social History, Huntington Digital Library (train ad); De Luan/Alamy Stock Photo (poster)

Advertisements like these encouraged train travel by portraying it as glamorous, comfortable, and exhilarating.

A Booming City

In less than 40 years, Chicago had grown from a mosquito-ridden trading post into a thriving metropolis of 330,000 people. Powering the city’s growth was a new form of transportation: trains. In the years since Bessie was born, railroads had begun to transform life in America. Suddenly, the entire country seemed to be in motion. Cross-country trips that had taken months by horse and buggy now took mere days.

 By the late 1860s, thousands of miles of railroad tracks crisscrossed the United States. Trains tunneled through mountains, snaked around lakes, flew over rivers and across canyons. America’s east and west coasts were, for the first time, connected. And smack in the middle of the action was Chicago, where dozens of railroad lines met.

In the history of the world, few cities had grown as fast as Chicago. But not everyone benefited from Chicago’s growth, especially not the people who had originally lived on the land where the city took root. For centuries, the Potawatomi people and members of other nations had hunted and fished in the area’s quiet marshes and riverbanks. The name Chicago comes from the Potawatomi word zhegagoynak (juh-gah-goh-ee-NAK), which means “the place of the wild onion.” But by the 1830s, the Potawatomi people, like tens of thousands of other Native Americans, had been forced off their lands by the United States government.

And not all immigrants to Chicago were as successful as the O’Learys. Many wound up working low-paying and often dangerous jobs in the city’s factories and mills.

Nature too suffered as Chicago boomed. The Chicago River was fouled by human waste and garbage. On rainy days, green slime oozed up through the city’s wooden sidewalks. Meanwhile, a gut-churning stench wafted from the stockyards—miles of pens filled with cattle and pigs awaiting slaughter or transport. So vile was the smell that some people vomited as they stepped off their trains.

Yet none of this stopped people from pouring into Chicago. Nothing, it seemed, could slow the city’s stunning growth.

Nothing, that is, but fire.

In less than 40 years, Chicago had grown from a mosquitoridden trading post into a thriving metropolis of 330,000 people. Powering the city’s growth was a new form of transportation: trains. In the years since Bessie was born, railroads had begun to transform life in America. Suddenly, the entire country seemed to be in motion. Cross-country trips that had taken months by horse and buggy now took just days.

By the late 1860s, thousands of miles of railroad tracks crisscrossed the United States. Trains tunneled through mountains, snaked around lakes, flew over rivers and across canyons. America’s east and west coasts were connected for the first time. And in the middle of the action was Chicago.

In the history of the world, few cities had grown as fast as Chicago. But not everyone benefited from Chicago’s growth, especially not the people who had originally lived on the land where the city was built. For centuries, the Potawatomi people and members of other nations had hunted and fished in the area’s quiet marshes and riverbanks. The name Chicago comes from the Potawatomi word zhegagoynak (juh-gah-goh-ee- NAK). The word means “the place of the wild onion.” But by the 1830s, the Potawatomi people, like tens of thousands of other Native Americans, had been forced off their lands by the United States government.

And not all immigrants to Chicago were as successful as the O’Learys. Many ended up working low-paying and often dangerous jobs in the city’s factories and mills. Nature too suffered as Chicago boomed. The Chicago River was fouled by human waste and garbage. On rainy days, green slime oozed up through the city’s wooden sidewalks. Meanwhile, a horrific smell wafted from the stockyards—miles of pens filled with cattle and pigs awaiting slaughter or transport. So horrid was the smell that some people vomited as they stepped off their trains.

Yet none of this stopped people from pouring into Chicago. Nothing, it seemed, could slow the city’s stunning growth. Nothing, that is, but fire.

Fire Risks

Today we are protected from fire by smoke detectors and sprinkler systems. Fire trucks speed through the streets to save a burning house and stop a fire from spreading.

But when Bessie and the O’Leary kids were growing up, the technology that now helps us prevent and quickly extinguish fires did not exist. At the same time, fire risks were everywhere. People read by the light of flames from candles or lanterns. They cooked on stoves heated with wood or white-hot coals. One fallen candle or stray ember could torch an entire neighborhood.

In the early and mid-1800s, large fires nearly destroyed New York City, San Francisco, Savannah, Georgia, and Portland, Maine. Those big fires provided important lessons in fire safety: Wooden buildings were far more likely to burn than those made of brick or stone, and cities needed large fire departments with the most modern firefighting tools.

Chicago was, in fact, better prepared for fires than some cities. Firefighters had horse-drawn pumper trucks that enabled them to pull water from hydrants and rivers. There were 172 alarm boxes around the city that made it possible for people to quickly alert the fire department when a fire broke out.

But the city’s fire department of 190 men was far too small for a city of Chicago’s size. Worst of all, Chicago was built almost entirely out of wood—not only houses like the Bradwells’ and the O’Learys’, but also the streets, sidewalks, and bridges. After all, wood was cheap and plentiful.

Today we are protected from fire by smoke detectors and sprinkler systems. Fire trucks speed through the streets to save a burning house and stop a fire from spreading.

But when Bessie and the O’Leary kids were growing up, the technology that now helps us prevent and quickly put out fires did not exist. At the same time, fire risks were everywhere. People read by the light of flames from candles or lanterns. They cooked on stoves heated with wood or hot coals. One fallen candle or stray ember could torch an entire neighborhood.

In the early and mid-1800s, large fires nearly destroyed New York City; San Francisco; Savannah, Georgia; and Portland, Maine. Those big fires provided important lessons in fire safety: Wooden buildings were far more likely to burn than those made of brick or stone, and cities needed large fire departments with the most modern firefighting tools.

Chicago was, in fact, better prepared for fires than some cities. Firefighters had horse-drawn pumper trucks that enabled them to pull water from hydrants and rivers. There were about 170 alarm boxes around the city that made it possible for people to quickly alert the fire department when a fire broke out.

But the city’s fire department of almost 200 men was far too small for a city of Chicago’s size. Worst of all, Chicago was built almost entirely out of wood—not only houses like the Bradwells’ and the O’Learys’, but also the streets, sidewalks, and bridges. After all, wood was cheap and easy to get.

INTERFOTO/Alamy Stock Photo (drawing); The Chicago History Museum/Tribune Publishing (ruins)

CHICAGO IN CRISIS

The drawing (above, left) shows people escaping out a window, with small children wrapped in bedding. The image (above, right) was taken after the fire.

Pleas and Warnings

Not surprisingly, there were more and more fires as Chicago grew. In 1870, 669 fires broke out in the city—a record. Chief Fire Marshal Robert Williams pleaded for additional men for the department and more money for equipment. Chicago’s mayor dismissed his request.

The summer of 1871 was far hotter and drier than normal. Only about an inch of rain fell between July and September. The city sizzled. Bessie sweated under her long skirts. Mrs. O’Leary’s cows sweltered in the barn.

By October, fires were breaking out several times a day. On Saturday, October 7, a monstrous fire devoured a lumber mill and four city blocks. The entire fire department battled the flames for 17 hours.

It was late that afternoon when Fire Marshal Williams, exhausted and bedraggled, finally headed home for supper. Walking slowly along the wooden sidewalks, past block after block of wooden buildings, he fought back a feeling of doom. The day had been unusually warm. A hot wind gusted from the southwest. He had no doubt that another large fire would break out soon.

But nobody in Chicago—not Bessie and her family, not the O’Learys, not even Fire Marshal Williams himself—could imagine the nightmare to come.

Not surprisingly, there were more and more fires as Chicago grew. In 1870, 669 fires broke out in the city—a record. Chief Fire Marshal Robert Williams begged for additional men for the department and more money for equipment. Chicago’s mayor dismissed his request.

The summer of 1871 was far hotter and drier than normal. Only about an inch of rain fell between July and September. The city sizzled. Bessie sweated under her long skirts. Mrs. O’Leary’s cows sweltered in the barn.

By October, fires were breaking out several times a day. On Saturday, October 7, a monstrous fire destroyed a lumber mill and four city blocks. The fire department battled the flames for many hours.

It was late that afternoon when Fire Marshal Williams, tired and bedraggled, finally headed home for supper. Walking slowly along the wooden sidewalks, past block after block of wooden buildings, he fought back a feeling of doom. The day had been unusually warm. A hot wind gusted from the southwest. He knew another large fire would break out soon.

But nobody in Chicago—not Bessie and her family, not the O’Learys, not even Fire Marshal Williams himself—could imagine the nightmare to come.

“The Barn Is Afire!”

The following night—Sunday—Catherine O’Leary and her family went to bed in the early evening, as usual. Catherine had barely fallen asleep when she was jolted awake by her husband’s screams. “Kate! The barn is afire!”

Catherine shot out of bed. She and Patrick hustled their five children to safety across the street. It was too late to save the barn. Patrick and neighbors filled washtubs with water from hydrants and struggled to protect the house.

A series of errors and confusion delayed the fire department. By the time firefighters arrived, much of the neighborhood was burning. The hot, dry wind pulled sheets of flame from house to house. Sparks and embers and hunks of fiery wood rose into the air. Like burning seeds, they grew into new fires wherever they landed. Blocks away from the O’Learys, a church caught fire. A box factory. A furniture factory filled with lumber.

Thousands of people were now on the streets. Horses ran wildly, dogs howled, rats zigzagged between running feet.

At the scene, Fire Marshal Williams directed his men as they desperately battled the flames. They held out hope that the fires wouldn’t cross the Chicago River. But by midnight, all hope was lost.

A mile away, the Bradwell family was awakened by the sounds of shouts and the smell of smoke. Right away, they sensed their house was in danger. Bessie’s parents made a plan. Bessie would go with her father to his office, to try to rescue his law books. Then they would meet Bessie’s mother and brother at a nearby park on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Bessie and her father hurried the few blocks to the office. Meanwhile, the fires burning in different neighborhoods joined together into one enormous inferno. The fire was now hundreds of yards wide and growing fast, its flaming jaws devouring the endless feast of wood. Superheated gases exploded from inside the fire, sending whirlwinds of flame hundreds of feet into the sky. The force tore rooftops from buildings and hurled them into the streets.

Fire Marshal Williams had no choice but to give up on putting the fire out. Instead he would focus on saving what he could.

The following night—Sunday—Catherine O’Leary and her family went to bed in the early evening, as usual. Catherine had barely fallen asleep when she was jolted awake by her husband’s screams. “Kate! The barn is afire!”

Catherine shot out of bed. She and Patrick hustled their five children to safety across the street. It was too late to save the barn. Patrick and neighbors filled washtubs with water from hydrants. They struggled to protect the house.

A series of errors and confusion delayed the fire department. By the time firefighters arrived, much of the neighborhood was burning. The hot, dry wind pulled flames from house to house. Sparks and embers and hunks of fiery wood rose into the air. Like burning seeds, they grew into new fires wherever they landed. Blocks away from the O’Learys, a church caught fire. A box factory. A furniture factory filled with lumber.

Thousands of people were now on the streets. Horses ran wildly. Dogs howled. Rats zigzagged between running feet.

At the scene, Fire Marshal Williams directed his men as they desperately battled the flames. They held out hope that the fires wouldn’t cross the Chicago River. But by midnight, all hope was lost.

A mile away, the Bradwell family was awakened by the sounds of shouts and the smell of smoke. Right away, they sensed their house was in danger. Bessie’s parents made a plan. Bessie would go with her father to his office. They would try to rescue his law books. Then they would meet Bessie’s mother and brother at a nearby park on the lake.

Bessie and her father hurried the few blocks to the office. Meanwhile, the fires burning in different neighborhoods joined together into one enormous inferno. The fire was now hundreds of yards wide and growing fast. Its flaming jaws devoured the endless feast of wood. Hot gases exploded from inside the fire, sending swirling flames hundreds of feet into the sky. The force tore rooftops from buildings and threw them into the streets.

Fire Marshal Williams had no choice but to give up on putting the fire out. Instead he would focus on saving what he could.

The Chicago History Museum/Tribune Publishing

Flyers like this one, from Cleveland, helped raise funds, food, and supplies for Chicagoans.

Haunted Survivors