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IS THE GREAT CHICAGO FIRE HISTORY’S MOST BIZARRE TRAGEDY?
By the time the last flame of the Great Chicago Fire fizzled out on October 10, 1871, 300 people were dead, a third of Chicago’s population were homeless, and 4 square miles of city were destroyed. Reflecting on the disaster begs the question: Was it the most bizarre tragedy ever? By October, 1871, Chicago only had 1 inch of rain all year, which is far less than the annual average of 35 inches. While the exact cause is unclear, historians commonly accept that a cow belonging to a Mrs. O’Leary started the fire in a barn on DeKoven Street by kicking over a lantern. Firemen responded immediately, but a watchman sent them to the wrong place by mistake, giving the unusual Southwest winds time to send the fire roaring toward the heart of the city. Most of Chicago’s buildings were made of wood, and the newly developed tar on the rooftops was incredibly flammable.
As the fire grew, the firefighters hoped the Chicago River would be a natural firebreak, but the city’s riverside had recently gained more lumber and coal yards, causing the fire to jump the river. As the air over the city overheated, it came into contact with cooler air, and a spinning fire tornado developed. After the fire jumped the river, a burning piece of timber lodged on the roof of the city’s waterworks building, destroying it and halting the city’s water supply. By the time the fire died over a day later, 73 miles of roads and $4 billion (in 2017 dollars) of property were destroyed. All this came about because of a cow, a drought, a bad watchman, some short-lived building materials, and a literal fire tornado. Modern safeguards wouldn’t allow this to happen today, which is very fortunate. If the disaster happened the same way today, it wouldn’t displace 1,000 people; it would displace 1 million.
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