Great Chicago Fire: Five Things You Didn’t Know

1871 illustration from Harper's Magazine depicting Mrs. O'Leary milking the cow. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
1871 illustration from Harper’s Magazine depicting Mrs. O’Leary milking the cow. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire ended after burning for two days.

Here are some things you may not have known about it.

• The fire started at about 9 p.m. on October 8, 1871, in or near a barn owned by the O’Leary family at 137 DeKoven Street.

• The fire burned about 3.3 square miles of the city of Chicago. About 300 people were killed and more than 100,000 were left homeless.

• At the time, more than two-thirds of the city’s buildings were made of wood.

The city was also dealing with a drought, having received only an inch of rain in the three months before the fire.

These factors, combined with an overwhelmed fire department, contributed to the fire’s rapid spread.

The fire spread across the Chicago River, and burned the city’s waterworks building, leaving the overmatched firefighters with no water.

The blaze raged through the next day until the evening hours when it began to rain and the fire reached more sparsely populated areas.

•The most popular origin story for the fire is the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow. The story is that a cow kicked over a lantern while Catherine O’Leary was milking it. The O’Leary family denied the story, saying they were in bed when the fire began. However, as poor, Irish immigrants, the family made for a perfect scapegoat. More than 20 years later, the reporter for the Chicago Tribune who spread the story, admitted he had fabricated it. The family, and the cow, were officially exonerated by the city council in 1997.

• Another story is that it was started by Louis M. Cohn, who was playing craps in the barn with one of the O’Leary’s sons. When Mrs. O’Leary came out to chase them off, Cohn is said to have accidentally kicked a lantern, which ignited the barn.

Our question: What structure now stands on the site of the O’Leary’s barn?


Today is Columbus Day in parts of the United States and Indigenous People’s Day in other parts of the U.S. It’s World Mental Health Day, World Homeless Day, and Independence Day in Cuba.

It’s unofficially National Angel Food Cake Day, National Metric Day, and National Tuxedo Day.

It’s the birthday of musician Thelonious Monk, who was born in 1917; film director Ed Wood, who was born in 1924; and author Nora Roberts, who turns 66.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1979, the top song in the U.S. was “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson.

The No. 1 movie was “10,” while the novel “Jailbird” by Kurt Vonnegut topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Weekly question

The 100,000 people left homeless represented what portion of Chicago’s population at the time of the fire?



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