It is true the infamous fire started in the barn of Catherine and Patrick O’Leary on Sunday night, October 8th, 1871. They lived at 137 DeKoven Street on Chicago’s West Side. But poor scapegoated Kate O’Leary was not milking a cow at the time, as was later popularized by the relentless press. They were looking for a scapegoat, someone to blame. She and her husband were instead fast asleep in their bedroom after a long day of work. They were morning laborers you see, up at the crack of dawn to milk their 5 cows and make deliveries to their neighbors. By 8:30 pm, after feeding both their barn animals and their children, they were legitimately exhausted.
Some also blamed Daniel “Peg Leg” Sullivan for starting the blaze. He was the first person to shout “FIRE! FIRE!” in the streets that fateful night. But no, Daniel was simple strolling by the O’Leary place, listening to fiddle music drifting from a neighbor’s house, who were hosting a party. He noticed the first lick of flames shooting out of the O’Leary barn roof. The loft was packed with 3 Tons of Hay for the winter and went up like a bone-dry tinder box. Peg Leg Sullivan in fact risked his life to free the O’Leary’s terrified animals. A shed next door unfortunately held 2 tons of coal, also stockpiled by a neighbor for winter. That quickly ignited next.
Once the barn and shed began to burn, there would be no controlling the blaze with a paltry neighborhood bucket brigade.
Across Chicago, a fierce, gusting prairie wind blew from the southwest all night long. In between the tightly packed wooden houses were lines of wooden fences and wooden sidewalks. By the time Patrick and Kate O’Leary emerged sleepily from their home, two of their neighbors’ houses were already ablaze. Chicago had been experiencing a terribly hot drought that autumn. The winds would eagerly thrust the fire from house to house … and then street to street, throughout the long night. Neighbors would first try a bucket brigade, but it would be all for naught.
Due to fire signal confusion by the fire department, the first Firehouse Steamers would not arrive for OVER AN HOUR! Even when a dozen more arrived, entire city blocks were now on fire. It was too late to contain it just to the rural West Side. You see back in the 1800’s, nearly every structure, including the sidewalks, was made of wood, not brick or stone.
The winds freely tossed huge firebrands the size of livestock clear across the dark Chicago River to the South Side, where warehouses and the business district waited. There the wind-fed inferno charged along, consuming dozens of factories and lumber yards. Then it swept into city center, burning luxury hotels, banks, department stores, and even the Opera House and the cupola’d City Hall. Tall grain silos on the edge of Lake Michigan burnt like monstrous Roman candles. Panicked residents crowded onto bridges across the Chicago River. City officials made a feeble attempt at a fire break by dynamiting a few South Side buildings. It had little effect. Only the waters of Lake Michigan halted its ravenous eastward march.
Within hours, the fire jumped the river again to the heavily populated North Side residential area. The Fire Brigades, with their tiny steamer engines, were not equipped to handle such a massive conflagration. Dozens of city blocks, filled with mansions, homes, schools and churches all went up in flames. All Chicagoans could do was watch in horror and dash away in panic, and ahead of the advancing front of flames. Even ships docked in the river and the wooden bridges that crossed it eventually caught fire and were consumed. In the middle of the night, dazed refugees huddled in Lincoln Park, or waded into the shore of Lake Michigan, praying to God for deliverance.
The Great Chicago Fire burned clear to Lake Michigan on the South and North Sides before a blessed early morning rain finally extinguished the hungry monster.
What was left of the city resembled Hiroshima after the atomic blast. Over 300 souls perished in the mighty blaze. Thousands of survivors were left homeless. The entire nation was shocked that one of their largest cities could literally go up in smoke. In the week to come, Kate O’Leary and her famous cow, were merely made unfortunate scapegoats. The papers went so far as to publish a now infamous sketch of her milking a cow that kicks a lantern into the straw. They drew her as an old, witch-like hag when in fact she was only thirty-five, with several young children to take care of. She and her family eventually had to flee the city due to numerous death threats.
So who Really started the famous fire that consumed a bustling American city? Having spent 2 years researching the Great Chicago Fire for my historical novel, FIREBRANDS, my theory is that it was not Catherine O’Leary or Peg Leg Sullivan. The most likely, though never proven culprit, was one of the O’Leary’s neighbors, from that rowdy party next door. If you had no cow, it was common to steal free milk from your neighbor’s barn under the cover of night. The drunken thief from the party likely had a candle that tipped over and fell into the hay. It starting the barn’s brittle, dry straw to blaze, and the shocked robber fled. After that, the rest is history. It would indeed be a “Hot Time in the Ole Town Tonight!“
Experience the Great Chicago Fire first hand in the historical novel, FIREBRANDS.