One dark night, when people were in bed,
Mrs. O’ Leary lit a lantern in her shed,
The cow kicked it over, winked its eye, and said,
There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.
Exactly 150 years ago, a great fire roared through the city of Chicago. No one knows for sure whether a lantern-kicking cow of the O’Leary’s was really responsible for starting the Great Chicago Fire on October 8, 1871. In fact, some believe the fire was started by a comet from outer space.
Chicago in Flames by Currier and Ives, 1871
The fire apparently started in the cow barn at the rear of the Patrick O’Leary cottage at 137 DeKoven Street on Chicago’s West Side. The blaze began about 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, 1871. By midnight the fire had jumped the river’s south branch, and by 1:30 a.m. the business district was in flames. Shortly thereafter the fire raced northward across the main river. With the limited firefighting equipment of 1871, the city’s fire department was helpless as the flames jumped from building to building.
Aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871
The waterworks were evacuated although the tower was not badly damaged and still stands. During Monday the fire burned as far as Fullerton Avenue. Rainfall started about midnight and helped put out the last of the flames. Three hundred Chicagoans were dead, 90,000 people (about 20 percent of the city’s residents) were homeless, and the property loss was $200 million. Four square miles of the city burned to the ground.
Chicago quickly rebuilt, and by 1875, little evidence of the disaster remained. You can read more about this cataclysmic event on the Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory web site, sponsored by the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University. Look at https://www.greatchicagofire.org/.
Further details are available in the official inquiry and the exoneration of Mrs. O’Leary: https://www.greatchicagofire.org/oleary-legend/.
While many of the neighboring residences (not to mention a third of the entire city of Chicago) went up in smoke, the home of the O’Learys escaped destruction. The infamous barn behind the house and most of the animals within it—a horse and the five cows that provided the milk that Catherine O’Leary sold locally—were not so fortunate (a calf was saved).
Ironically, the Chicago Fire Academy now stands on the O’Leary property.
Finally, did a comet cause the Great Chicago Fire of 1871? Don’t laugh. It seems that other fires occurred on the same day in Wisconsin and Michigan, burning an area the size of Connecticut and killing more than 2,000 people. Many of the deceased included people who showed no signs of being burned, consistent with either the absence of oxygen or the presence of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide above lethal levels, both conditions that could happen in a comet strike.
You can read more about the comet theory at https://rense.com/general69/comet.htm.