Oct 8, 2010

Did Mrs. O'Leary's Cow Start "The Great Chicago Fire?"


Harper's Weekly cartoon showing Mrs. O'Leary and her cow


On October 8, 1871, a disastrous fire broke out in Chicago, Illinois.  Ultimately, the conflagration would kill some 300 people.  It would become known as "The Great Chicago Fire," destroying some 70,000 buildings, 73 miles of roadway, and leaving 90,000 inhabitants of the Windy City homeless before it ended.

As a child growing up in Southern Illinois, having a grandmother who lived in Chicago for a time, I heard many stories about "The Great Chicago Fire."  The picture below, in fact, is a copy of a Currier & Ives rendering of “The Great Chicago Fire” which I keep fondly in my grandmother’s scrapbook to this day.

Perhaps, you heard stories similar to the ones I was told.  According to urban legend, this monstrous blaze that destroyed one of the largest cities in the U.S. started innocently enough when Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern in a barn.  Sound familiar?

In fact, "The Great Chicago Fire" was part of a series of fires that burned several cities in the Lake Michigan area during the summer and fall of 1871.  That year, the Midwest experienced extraordinarily dry weather.  From June through October of that year, smaller blazes broke out on an almost daily basis.  By some accounts, Chicago experienced at least two smaller fires a day throughout this period.  Fires and the smell of smoke became so common that people began not to even notice.

On the night of October 8, 1871, according to an excellent article in today's FindingDulcinea, a warm southwestern wind blew across the Midwestern Plains.  Devastating fires erupted in many cities, including Chicago.  Although historians have debunked the theory of Mrs. O'Leary's unfortunate cow, none can say for certain where or how "The Great Chicago Fire" started.  We do know, however, that Chicago was a city made almost entirely out of wood in 1871.  Even its sidewalks were wooden.  As a result, this warm, southwestern wind fueled a fire cyclone that quickly devoured the Windy City.

After the fire died, Chicago immediately began rebuilding.  Skyscrapers were designed to replace the dangerous, wooden structures.  In 1893, only 22 years later, the Windy City hosted the World's Columbian Exposition (aka the Chicago World's Fair) and was acclaimed around the world for its quick rebirth.


Author's addendum - Despite the "debunking" of the theory that Mrs. O'Leary's cow started "The Great Chicago Fire," it remains an enduring urban legend explaining the start of the blaze.  It is not the only explanation, however. According to FindingDulcinea, some believe that players of a craps game or a milk thief started the fire.  

Another alleged cause - and admittedly, more interesting one - is attributed to Biela's Comet, which was passing over the Northern Hemisphere at the time.  According to some, the comet could have dropped methane which ignited the flames.

This article was updated on January 3, 2014
Enhanced by Zemanta