Monday, October 4, 2021

The Great Chicago Fire - Its 150 Year Anniversary

 By Pamela S. Meyers

From Chicago History Museum
Printed in Chicago Tribune 9/27/21

As I write this during the last week of September, we’re coming up on the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire that ignited on October 8, 1871, and continued until October 9.

Growing up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, not far from Chicago, I was always aware of that catastrophic event. Especially so, since it had a strong influence on the history of my hometown when it caused many well-to-do Chicagoans to move their families to Geneva Lake. Their intention was to make it a temporary displacement, but many chose to make the area their home away from home and built beautiful lakeshore mansions there. 

Ironically, the weather around Chicago right now is very similar to what it was leading up to the fire. Back in 1871, the summer had been particularly dry and summer-like temperatures still prevailed in early October. 

The city of Chicago, including buildings in the business district as well as homes in the neighborhoods, was constructed mostly of wood. Even the sidewalks were wooden. The hot southwest winds blowing through the city streets, combined with the dry weather conditions, and lack of recent rain made a perfect recipe for fire. 

Although rumor has said a cow belonging to a woman named Mrs.
Public Domain
O’Leary, caught the woman’s barn on fire when it kicked over a lantern, it’s never been confirmed. Regardless of what sparked a fire that hot, dry night, the blaze did begin in the O’Leary neighborhood and spread quickly. 

The red-hot sky across the Chicago River from the affluent neighborhoods to the north alerted the wealthy inhabitants to the fire. Assured the river would stop the blaze from spreading their direction, people continued on with their usual Sunday night activities ... until a ball of fire erupted over the city and exploded, sending small orbs of flame to the ground. 

Resource: Chicago Tribune, 9/27/21

Soon, the courthouse bell clanged out a call to all firemen to report for duty. The river was no match for the ugly flames as they ate up the oil slick in the water, climbed the riverbank, and ignited the homes along the riverbank. People raced to fill their carriages with as much as they could of their possessions, and the streets filled with horses, carriages, and people on foot, all heading north. Many made it as far as Lincoln Park near Lake Michigan and scurried into the lake to soak their clothing to protect themselves from falling sparks. 

People from all walks of life filled the park, from squalling babies being comforted by their nursing mothers and elderly grandmothers to worried men attempting protect their families and calm their horses.

The following day, the flames finally died down, but those who had escaped the fire had no home to return to. Much of Chicago’s business district and its neighborhoods were destroyed. The Chicago Tribune reported in the September 28, 2021, edition that 17,450 buildings were destroyed and of that number, six remain standing today, including the infamous water tower on Michigan Avenue.

Water Tower & Pumping Station on 
Michigan Avenue After the Fire
Source: Chicago Tribune 9/28/21

Water Tower and Pumping Station Today
Source: Chicago Tribune 9/28/21

Chicago wasn't the only city to experience a large fire that night. Farther to the north, Peshtigo, Wisconsin was destroyed and across Lake Michigan, the town of Holland, Michigan burned to the ground.

Have you ever experienced a fire that damaged your home or place of work? 

  • The Great Chicago Fire; Robert Cromie; Rutledge Hill Press; 1958
  • The Great Chicago Fire; Wikipedia
  • Chicago Tribune, 9/28/2021, The Great Chicago Fire Destroyed. 17,450 Buildings. Here Are Six That Survived.

Pam Meyers says of herself: I'm just a Wisconsin girl living in Illinois. She lives in the Chicago suburbs and makes her way north to her hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin every chance she gets. Her historical novels set in Lake Geneva are available on Amazon and other online book stores, as well as in stores around Lake Geneva.

"This is the kind of book you hate to put down, with unexpected twists and turns that leave you on the edge of your seat!" An Amazon Reader


  1. Thank you for posting! The only fires I've ever personally experienced were chimney fires, and only one of those damaged anything in the home. But they were terrifying! I have seen massive fires a couple of times, and of course have seen the damage caused by them.

  2. Thanks, Connie for your comment. Back in the 80s arson fire heavily damaged my church sanctuary. I'd just joined the church and seeing the worship area so charred and damaged was devastating. I can't imagine how it must have been for those who lost their homes and livelihoods back then. I'm glad you fire damage was minimal.

  3. No I have not. Thank the good Lord. My husbands great-great grandmother who lived in the german part of upper chicago was pregnant at the time and his great grandmother was born the following spring. There was a lot of stories that she wrote down and passed down. I didnt even know about the fire until I moved to Illinois and married my husband who grew up in Chicago. Wow.

  4. Thank the Lord we've never had a fire. The stories of the Chicago fire have always been so tragic with all that was lost. Looking forward to your new book.