Great Fire of 1871 - FIRE!

FIRE! (Illustration) American History Awesome Radio - Narrated Stories Famous Historical Events Social Studies STEM Nineteenth Century Life Famous People Disasters

Early firefighters had inefficient and primitive equipment. This image depicts an illustration from Industrial History of the United States, from the Earliest Settlements to the Present Time; being a Complete Survey of American Industries ... together with a Description of Canadian Industries, an 1879 book by Albert Sidney Bolles.


Long before Mrs. O’Leary lived in Chicago, prehistoric man learned how to produce fire. Life on earth changed at that moment. Without fire, civilization wasn’t possible. With it, people could live better lives.

But fire - especially man-created firestorms - can produce disasters of monumental proportions. When a wildfire burns completely out of control, even today, the best firefighters can do is hope for low wind and lots of rain.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, before fire engines were invented, firefighters used buckets and shovels to combat encroaching flames. This image, from Boston Fire Historical Society, depicts the personal bucket which John Rowe (a Boston firefighter) used in 1760.

Early versions of American fire engines were imported from London (a city devastated by the Great Fire of 1666). Boston, prompted by a disastrous 1679 fire, formed the first paid fire-fighting department and imported the colonies’ initial engine. New York City had the new equipment by 1731.

Fire steam engines, a huge help for New York, were available in 1841. But early equipment broke down. Precious time was wasted just trying to set it up. Early steamers were pulled by horses who couldn’t travel as fast as they were needed.

During the 1860s, Civil War fire engines (follow the link to view an 1865 version) were primitive. By 1870, the year before the Great Fires, a "good steam fire-engine" could throw 1200 gallons of water 200 feet in one minute. (Manufacturer and Builder; Volume 2, Issue 10, October, 1870. Scroll down to pages 305-306.)

But even along the shore of a great lake, water wasn’t enough for 19th century firefighters to stop a spreading conflagration pushed along by cyclonic winds.

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

Original Release: Sep 01, 2002

Updated Last Revision: May 02, 2019

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"FIRE!" AwesomeStories.com. Sep 01, 2002. Jan 20, 2020.
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