Chicago’s Great Fire, 150 Years Later
An exhibition at the Chicago History Museum explores the legacy of the blaze, which devastated the Midwestern city and left 100,000 homeless
On a hot fall night in 1871, the O’Leary family awoke in a panic. Somehow, a blaze had sparked in their DeKoven Street barn, a small building tucked next to an alley in their southwest Chicago neighborhood.
“My husband got outside the door,” Catherine O’Leary, the mother of the family, would later recall. “He ran back to the bedroom and said, ‘Kate, the barn is afire!’”
By the day the Great Chicago Fire began—October 8, 1871—it had been 22 days since Chicago had last seen rain, reports Robert Loerzel for Chicago magazine. The rapidly-growing metropolis had built most of its homes, pipes and sidewalks out of wood, which became kindling for the blaze that was about to spread across the city.
The Great Chicago Fire sparked on DeKoven Street and would go on to raze huge swaths of the Illinois city, killing as many as 300 people and leaving 100,000 more without homes. People of all backgrounds and class were forced to flee for their lives, scrambling to save what they could. The fire destroyed some 18,000 buildings and radically reshaped the urban landscape, Neil Steinberg reports for the Chicago Sun-Times.
After the flames subsided, Chicago’s residents reckoned with grief, loss and the recovery on an unprecedented scale. To mark the 150th anniversary of the disaster, the Chicago History Museum (CHM) has organized “City on Fire: Chicago 1871,” which opened on October 8 and runs through 2025.
Items on display also include strange stacks of materials warped by the flames: stacks of coins, collections of buttons and bits of tile.
“The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was a pivotal event in the city’s history, setting it on a path of unmatched resilience and constant evolution that still defines Chicago today,” said exhibition curator Julius L. Jones in a statement. “We are honored to tell this important Chicago story in a way that helps our visitors draw parallels to the present-day.”
Museumgoers will listen to firsthand accounts from fire survivors and walk through the sequence of events that led to the disaster. Visitors can also learn about the city’s uneven recovery efforts, which tended to leave poorer Chicagoans in the dust and often exacerbated racial, ethnic and social tensions.
Shortly after the fire, reporters began to single out Catherine “Kate” O’Leary, a 44-year-old Irish immigrant, as a scapegoat, claiming that a cow kicked over a lantern in the family’s DeKoven street barn and sparked the blaze. The story was a lie but nevertheless took hold. Newspapers printed cartoons and articles that stoked nativist sentiment and reinforced ethnic stereotypes against the city’s Irish population. As much as she shunned the press, O’Leary’s name would be forever tied to the 1871 disaster, historian Karen Abbott wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2012.
Also in the exhibition is an 1893 model of a Great Fire cyclorama. The immersive panoramic painting, which audiences would view from a rotating platform, reports Talia Soglin for the Chicago Tribune, was the "19th century’s version of augmented reality.”
Online viewers can experience a 3-D reconstructed version of the cyclorama through this link. In its original form, the highly detailed painting was approximately 50 by 400 feet and encircled its viewers in an enormous round room, exposing them to a realistic scene of fire, mayhem and crowds scrambling to escape the blaze, writes historian Carl Smith in a CHM blog post.
The work was displayed on Michigan Avenue between Madison and Monroe streets during the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. This original painting is lost to history, per the Tribune; the replica on display now at the History Museum is about one-tenth the original’s size.
The exhibition also tracks how the fire led to profound changes in firefighting regulations in Chicago. In 1872, the City of Chicago mandated the use of fire-resistant materials, such as bricks, in the use of all buildings, as Blair Kamin reported for the Chicago Tribune in 1992.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the city had well-equipped firefighting teams before the Fire relative to the national standard. “Chicago was a city well-prepared to fight fires,” CHM curator Julius L. Jones tells Soglin of the Tribune. “It had probably one of the most sophisticated firefighting apparatuses in the United States.”
However, the limited team had been tired out by a devastatingly hot, dry summer, which resulted in countless smaller fires across the city, and Wisconsin’s own devastating Peshtigo Fire. The Chicago blaze was so powerful that “fire devils,” or vortexes of flames, would spin across buildings and jump to new blocks, setting new structures alight.
At the CHM, viewers can see a Fire Marshal’s hat that one of the men wore while fighting the uncontrollable blaze. “The fire was so intense, it twisted their leather helmets out of shape,” notes Steinberg in the Chicago Sun-Times.