Who would ever think that a simple act of milking a cow could lead to a terrible disaster that would devastate a city? Well, we are led to believe that this is exactly what caused The Great Chicago Fire which started on October 8th 1871. Catherine O’ Leary, who was a poor Irish immigrant, was milking a cow in her barn as she did every evening, when disaster struck. The cow became excited and kicked over a lantern which started a fire in the barn. The fire raged out of control and spread rapidly from one building to the next.
At that time most of Chicago’s buildings were wooden structures with tar roofs. All of the city’s footpaths were also made of wood. This meant that the fire spread really quickly across the city. When the flames reached the Chicago River, fire fighters thought this might cause a firebreak, but strong winds blew burning debris across the river. On the other side of the river huge timber yards, coal yards and warehouses were set aflame and the fire intensified. Thousands of people ran for their lives to escape the towering flames. Many of them jumped into Lake Michigan to get away from the intense heat.
Despite the best efforts of the Chicago Fire Department, the fire raged out of control for two days. Eventually, with the help of the long-awaited rain, the fire was brought under control but left a trail of destruction in its wake. Over 300 people died, with many hundreds more injured or badly burned. One third of the city’s population, that is 100,000 people, were left homeless. 17,500 buildings were destroyed and an area of 4 square miles was badly damaged including the business area in the centre of the city.
There is no doubt that the Great Chicago Fire started in O’ Leary’s barn but Catherine O’ Leary always claimed that she and her family were asleep at the time. Another story says that a number of men were gambling illegally in the barn and may have started the fire accidentally. Years later, Catherine O’ Leary was cleared of all blame. Ironically, the Training Academy of the Chicago Fire Dept. is now located on the site of O’ Leary’s barn on DeKoven Street.