In Memory of the Great Chicago Fire - Fire Safety Week

Each year, on the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire (October 8-9, 1871), Fire Prevention Week takes place, encouraging fire safety. The National Fire Protection Association has been the sponsor of Fire Prevention Week since 1922 when it was proclaimed by President Warren G. Harding. Learn more about Fire Prevention Week here.

To kick off the first day of fire prevention week, let's take a look back on the Great Chicago Fire.

The Beginning

On a typical Sunday night, you are getting ready for the work week, never expecting it to be anything other than ordinary, but on Sunday, October 8, 1871 at 9pm, everything changed in Chicago. The Great Chicago fire ignited on DeKoven Street, which is now just a short distance from the Loop.

The fire ignited in or around the O'Leary barn and rapidly spread throughout the city. The city had the ideal atmosphere for a blazing catastrophe because the buildings were mostly made of wood, a drought had dried the wood out, and the wind was so powerful it blew the embers into the heart of the city, aiding in the spread of the fire. The fire spread over two days through 3.3 square miles (34 city blocks), killing 300 people and leaving another 100,000 homeless.

The Spread

The fire department received the first fire alarm alert a full 40 minutes after the fire began from a nearby pharmacist that saw the blaze. However, the pharmacist sent the fire fighters in the wrong direction, allowing the fire to grow too large to contain. Once the fire was found, in vain, the fire fighters attempted to contain it, the mayor even called nearby suburban fire departments to assist. The efforts were put to a sudden stop when the fire spread to the waterworks, cutting off the water supply to all of Chicago. At this point, fire fighters were forced to stop their fight and let it burn out on its own.

The Results

Residents fled from the fire for two days. Union General Philip Sheridan (Does Sheridan Road sound familiar?) took control with the mayor's decision to place the city under martial law. Over the two day fire and a few days post-fire, he controlled the crowds, keeping residents calm. On late Monday, October 9, 1871, the fire burnt itself out with the help of a drizzling rain. A few days later martial law was lifted.

After the fire, surveys determined that a 4 x .75 mile area was destroyed, 73 miles of road, 120 miles of sidewalk, 2,000 lampposts, and 17,500 buildings. 1/3 of residents were left homeless. Chicago's Water Tower Place was one of the few buildings that survived, and surprisingly, the O'Leary's home survived!

This fire led to immediate revisions in fire standards and spurred the country's leading fire fighting force. In fact, the Chicago Fire Academy resides on the O'Leary property. The Palmer House was destroyed only 13 days after its grand opening. The developer, Potter Palmer, rebuilt across the street from the original with strong fire protection standards, claiming the building as the "World's First Fire Proof Building." This fire, devastating as it was, spurred positive action in fire standards.