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Oct 8: The Great Chicago Fire

The Great Chicago Fire began in the early morning of October 8, 1871 –  150 years ago today. 

The fire burned throughout that day and night and continued into the next day. The blaze spread across an area about 6km long and almost 1.5km wide, and it completely destroyed the centre of the city.

Chicago was the second biggest city in the US at this time, with a population of around 300,000. By the time the fire had burned itself out, 100,000 people were homeless and around 300 people had lost their lives. 

The total property damage from the fire was calculated at over €200 million, which is estimated to be more than €4 billion in today’s money.

How it started 

It seems that the Great Fire may have started in a barn owned by an Irish immigrant to the US, Mrs Catherine O’Leary. Allegedly, she was milking her cow, called Daisy, by the light of a kerosene lamp when the cow kicked out and knocked the lamp over, causing the straw and hay in the barn to catch fire.

Soon the wooden barn was ablaze, and the fire quickly spread to buildings nearby. 

How it spread

Most of the buildings in Chicago at that time were made of wood, and the pavements and roads were made of wood as well. And there was very little rainfall in the city in the summer of 1871.

In fact, in the three weeks up to October 8, absolutely no rain fell in Chicago. Meanwhile, winds on the night of the fire were gusting up to 50km/h.  On top of that, the fire engines were sent to the wrong address at first, so by the time they got to the barn the ?re was out of control. 

How it was stopped

The Chicago Fire Department of 1871 had only 185 firefighters and 17 horse-drawn steam engines to protect the whole city. Although they worked bravely to control the fire, it continued to spread. They hoped that the Chicago River would put a stop to it. However, the strong winds blew sparks and embers across the river, allowing the fire to rage on. Eventually, a rainstorm on October 10 helped the Fire Department to extinguish  the terrible blaze.

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