The Great Chicago Fire

October 08, 2001


Provided by: NASA/GSFC Landsat Program
Summary authors & editors: Jim Foster

One hundred and thirty years ago today, a great conflagration ruined a good portion of the city of Chicago, the broad-shoulders of America. As the story goes, Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern, initiating the greatest fire in Chicago's history. This story has been embellished over the years, and it's probably based more on fiction than facts. Conditions were tinder dry during the autumn of 1871 throughout much of the upper Mid West, and it only took a stray spark to set things ablaze. As A.T. Andreas, the city's leading nineteenth-century historian, stated, "Nature had withheld her accustomed measure of prevention, and man had added to the peril by recklessness." For example, Chicago averaged about two fires a day the previous year, including twenty in the preceding week. The largest of these occurred the night before the "Great Fire" itself.

Chicago was basically a trading post at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1837, when it was grantest its first charter, there were less than 5,000 people, and by 1850 there was just under 30,000, but on the eve of the "Great Fire" approximately 330,000 people called Chicago their home - the 4th largest city in the US. After the fire, an important question, and a challenge to the city, was how would Chicago respond to such a devastating disaster? The challenge was met, the city was quickly rebuilt, and Chicago became as much a symbol as it was a burgeoning urban center. 700 miles further east and 130 years later, our nation's biggest city is also facing a daunting challenge, and odds are, it too will quickly bounce back.

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