Great Fire of 1871 - CAUSE AND ORIGIN

CAUSE AND ORIGIN (Illustration) American History Awesome Radio - Narrated Stories Famous Historical Events Social Studies STEM Nineteenth Century Life Disasters

This map illustrates the area of Chicago which was devastated by the October 1871 "Great Fire." Click on the image to see both a much-larger view and the place where the fire originated (marked by a red dot).  The map, originally released circa 1869, has been modified to show the burned-out areas of the city (and the place where fire officials believe the blaze began in the O’Leary barn).


It’s generally acknowledged the fire started in the O’Leary barn (reflected by the burn pattern, starting on DeKoven Street, in the path-of-destruction map). But no one is really sure how it started.

There is Mrs. O’Leary, of course, and her cow. But she was exonerated in the official report.

Daniel ("Peg Leg") Sullivan first saw the flames coming, he said, from the O’Leary barn. Yet, when one considers Sullivan’s line of sight to the barn, it’s doubtful he could even see the O’Leary property. Maybe he really wasn’t where he said he was.

Along those lines, a recent study blames Sullivan himself. Did he go to the O’Leary barn to feed his mother’s cow that night? If so, did he smoke there and inadvertently start the fire?

Historians have always considered the drought and an out-of-control brush fire as the likely cause. That was at least part of the official findings after the investigation was concluded.

Recently the idea of a disintegrating comet, with falling meteorite debris, has resurfaced as a possible cause. (The link takes you to a picture of a 26.5 kilogram meteorite allegedly found on the shore of Lake Huron.)  Perhaps, scientists wonder, sparks from a meteor shower ignited hay in the O'Leary barn?

At the time of the fire, people said they saw burning material falling from the heavens. No one took them seriously, of course. They were just hysterical people, weren’t they? Yet the line of actual fires, drawn from the meteorite’s Lake Huron location to Peshtigo and Chicago, makes one wonder about the evidence. Was it all just a coincidence?

Whatever the cause, a combination of failures worked against Chicago that night. An elaborate fire alarm system - dependent on human input - failed. The alarm closest to the O’Leary farm (Box 295) was never rung.

Firefighters in the vicinity of DeKoven Street learned about the fire when they saw it. All available men and equipment were fighting a losing battle on the south side.

No one dreamed the fire would jump the river. When it did, neither man nor machine was there to combat the growing wall of flames.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Sep 01, 2002

Updated Last Revision: Jun 29, 2019

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"CAUSE AND ORIGIN" AwesomeStories.com. Sep 01, 2002. Feb 21, 2020.
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