Chicago experienced a very fast but apparently haphazard growth due primarily to the balloon house that dominated the city in its early years. The balloon house was invented in Chicago by Augustine Taylor and used light weight planks and nails instead of heavy timbers that were mortised together. The end product looked like it would blow away in a high wind, like a balloon, thus the name. The Great Chicago Fire, one of the most spectactular calamities of the nineteenth century, started at 9:30 Sunday evening, October 8, 1871 in the rear of a one-story frame building on the northeast corner of Dekoven (1100S) and Jefferson (600W) streets cumulated the expense of the balloon house technology. The true story as to how the fire started is still unknown and the belief that a kerosene lamp was overturned during the milking a cow is more myth than truth. There is no doubt, however, that the fire did start in the O’Leary barn, based on the ruins left by the devastion. The actual cause will probably never be known. Once started, the fire split several times in various directions which spelled doom for the metropolis.
Newsboy Crying the News of the Chicago Fire
Photographer: Oscar Gustave Rejlander, 1871
Blame could be pointed to a combination of factors including a six week draught, strong winds, an exhausted fire department, a breakdown in the alarm system and the sheer unpredictability of the fire’s path. The Chicago Tribune, issued a cautionary editorial on September 10, 1871 by citing walls “a hundred feet high, but a single brick in thickness” and went on to say “there are miles of such fire traps.”
Before the first fireman had even reached the scene, the fire had crossed Taylor (1000S) and Forquer (900S) streets in the West Division. From there it spread to Clinton street (530W), just below Polk street (800S).
The fire initially moved west and crossed the Chicago River into the South Division via the Polk street (800S) bridge, destroying the bridge as it moved across. By 11:30pm the fire had reached Van Buren (400S) and Canal (500W) streets joining the south line of a separate fire from the previous night that consumed approximately sixteen acres. At this juncture the fire had consumed nearly 150 acres. The fire was now at a major turning point.
For an instant, there was a gleam of hope. After all, there was wasteland to the north from the night before, the west was protected by the wind, and the east had the river. The fire should have stopped here. According to eyewitnesses, a blazing brand carried by the wind fell upon a cluster of miserable shanties on the east side of the river. These buildings were on Adams (200S) and Franklin (300W) streets, about a third of a mile from any burning building of any size west of the river. Within seconds, the blaze started and there was plenty of fuel.
The map of the “Night Before the Great Fire” which left the Fire Department undermanned and overtired.
There was no real fear among the citizens of the fire ever reaching catastrophic proportions until it had crossed the river. During the night, the people in the North Division were watching the distant blaze for about an hour never admitting that there was any danger to them. But when the fire hit Adams (200S) and Franklin (300W) streets, it rushed through the streets and alleys as if they were straw. Blazing boards and lumps of fire were raining heavily on Lake (200N) and Water (300N) streets.
It was one o’clock when the fire reached the municipal buildings on LaSalle (150W) street. First the Chamber of Commerce, then the Court House became engulfed in flames an hour later. At 2:15 am the clock tower of the Court House fell.
One of the very few positive turning points took place at the Madison (0N) street bridge. It seemed that the fire was going to re-cross the river, and commence a new path in the West Division, but blocking it’s path was the Oriental Flouring mills immediately west of the bridge. The mill was saved from destruction by the immense steam force pump attached to it which pumped water onto the building constantly. This pump undoubtedly saved the West Division from further damage, for if the fire had gotten past the mill, the combustible nature of the adjoing buildings, not to mention a lumber yard, would have produced more unimaginable damage.
Residents in the North Division had considered themselves safe, because they were out of the line of the wind. However, by the early Monday dawn, the fire had worked westward along the river to Wells (200W) street and forced the thought safe residents to flee their fine homes. The fire burned continually all day Monday while it was moving toward Fullerton (2400N) street.
When the fire reached Fullerton street at 10:00 pm, a soaking rain finally fell, extinguishing the inferno, but not before it took out 122 of the city’s 680 miles of sidewalks.
Burnt District Map
The R. P. Studley Company
137 DeKoven Street
Original O’Leary cottage (left), three story brownstone built in 1880 (right)
137 DeKoven Street
Robinson Fire Map, 1886
Volume 1, Plate 6
558 DeKoven Street
Chicago Fire Academy