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The Great Chicago Fire 1871: Historical Photos that Depict the Destruction caused by the Great Disaster

From October 8 to October 10, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned throughout the city, destroying thousands of buildings, killing an estimated 300 people, and causing $200 million in damages. One legend says a cow kicked over a lantern in a barn and started the blaze. However, other theories claim humans or a meteor might have caused the disaster that destroyed an area about four miles long and almost a mile wide. This included the city’s business district. After the fire, reconstruction efforts began immediately and led to significant economic development and population growth.

On October 8, a fire broke out at or near a barn located on the property of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary at 137 DeKoven Street on the southwest side of the city. It is said that the fire started when the family’s cow knocked over a lantern. However, Catherine O’Leary denied this claim, and the true cause of the fire has never been determined. The fire quickly grew out of control and moved rapidly north and east toward the city center. Firefighting efforts were boosted by rain on October 10, when a sudden downpour brought the blaze under control. Approximately 300 people were killed and 100,000 were left homeless in the Great Chicago Fire. It destroyed more than 17,000 structures and caused $200,000 in damages. There was a wave of looting and lawlessness following the disaster. Armed forces were summoned to Chicago on October 11, and martial law was declared. The martial law was lifted several weeks later.

Aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire

After the fire, Joseph Medill (1823-99) won an election as mayor by promising to establish stricter building and fire codes, a promise that may have helped him win the election. Most of the city’s voting records were destroyed in the fire, making it almost impossible to prevent people from voting more than once. Chicago’s transportation systems, as well as much of its physical infrastructure, remained intact despite the fire’s destruction. In the process of reconstruction, the city grew quickly and had the first skyscrapers in the world, spurring economic growth and population growth. During the time of the fire, Chicago’s population was approximately 324,000; within nine years, it had risen to about 500,000. By 1890, the city had a population of more than 1 million and was a significant economic and transportation hub. In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, which attracted 27.5 million tourists. On the site where the Great Chicago Fire began, the Chicago Fire Department training academy now stands. Catherine O’Leary, an Irish immigrant who died in 1895, and her cow were exonerated by the Chicago City Council in 1997.

Below are some historical photos that depict the destruction caused by the Great Chicago fire of 1871.

#1

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#2 The undamaged O’Leary cottage, near the origin point of the fire.

The undamaged O’Leary cottage, near the origin point of the fire.

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#3

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#4

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#5 The ruins of the Chicago Historical Society building.

The ruins of the Chicago Historical Society building.

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#6

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#7

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#8 A man stands on the remains of the Van Buren Street Bridge.

A man stands on the remains of the Van Buren Street Bridge.

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#9 A man pours cold water on a still-hot safe after the fire.

A man pours cold water on a still-hot safe after the fire.

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#10 A man stands amid the ruins of the Union Depot.

A man stands amid the ruins of the Union Depot.

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#11 The ruins of the Grand Pacific Hotel and the Honore block, seen from the corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets.

The ruins of the Grand Pacific Hotel and the Honore block, seen from the corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets.

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#12 1869 map of Chicago, altered to show the area destroyed by the fire (location of O’Leary’s barn indicated by red dot).

1869 map of Chicago, altered to show the area destroyed by the fire (location of O’Leary’s barn indicated by red dot).

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#13 The ruins of Trinity Church.

The ruins of Trinity Church.

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#14

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#15

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#16 Exterior walls remain standing on “Drake’s Block” at the corner of Wabash Avenue and Washington Street.

Exterior walls remain standing on “Drake’s Block” at the corner of Wabash Avenue and Washington Street.

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#17 Reconstruction begins a few weeks after the fire.

Reconstruction begins a few weeks after the fire.

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#18 Men stand amid the rubble at LaSalle Street and Washington Street.

Men stand amid the rubble at LaSalle Street and Washington Street.

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#19 The first destroyed business to reopen in the aftermath of the fire.

The first destroyed business to reopen in the aftermath of the fire.

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#20 1871 illustration from Harper’s Magazine depicting Mrs. O’Leary milking the cow.

1871 illustration from Harper’s Magazine depicting Mrs. O’Leary milking the cow.

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#21 Artist’s rendering of the fire, by Currier and Ives; the view faces northeast across the Randolph Street Bridge.

Artist’s rendering of the fire, by Currier and Ives; the view faces northeast across the Randolph Street Bridge.

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#22 The Great Chicago Fire erupted on Oct. 8, 1871, and burned a large portion of the city until it died out two days later.

The Great Chicago Fire erupted on Oct. 8, 1871, and burned a large portion of the city until it died out two days later.

The fire killed hundreds and destroyed much of the central business district, which was largely constructed from wood.

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#23 The view looking north shows the Pumping Station after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The view looking north shows the Pumping Station after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The station's walls survived the fire, but the roof did not.

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#24 The Oct. 11 edition of the Chicago Tribune following the Great Chicago Fire.

The Oct. 11 edition of the Chicago Tribune following the Great Chicago Fire.

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#25 Gutted buildings and smoldering rubble at State and Madison streets after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Gutted buildings and smoldering rubble at State and Madison streets after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

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#26 Firefighters that made up Engine company No. 24 when this photo was taken, fought the Great Chicago Fire back in 1871.

Firefighters that made up Engine company No. 24 when this photo was taken, fought the Great Chicago Fire back in 1871.

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#27 The ruins looking north across the Chicago river, toward the site of today’s Merchandise Mart, after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

The ruins looking north across the Chicago river, toward the site of today's Merchandise Mart, after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Boat masts can be seen from the water. Photo taken from South Water Street.

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#28 The west entrance to the courthouse shows it in ruins from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

The west entrance to the courthouse shows it in ruins from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

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#29 A drawing shows a family seeking refuge from the fire on a rooftop during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

A drawing shows a family seeking refuge from the fire on a rooftop during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

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#30 Looking north across what is now the Loop after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Looking north across what is now the Loop after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Some of Chicago's present day real estate firms had their start before the fire and survived it to play active roles in the rebirth of the city, wrote the Tribune in 1958.

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#31 Workers clean up rubble from the Great Central Station, located at the foot of Lake Street after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Workers clean up rubble from the Great Central Station, located at the foot of Lake Street after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

The broken stone and bricks were dumped along the lake shore to make additional land.

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#32 The ruins of the Grand Pacific Hotel after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The ruins of the Grand Pacific Hotel after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

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#33 The Rush Street Bridge after the Great Chicago Fire, looking north from the Chicago River in 1871.

The Rush Street Bridge after the Great Chicago Fire, looking north from the Chicago River in 1871.

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#34 In this photo taken shortly after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the O’Leary house, center, still stands, but only rubble is left of its barn, right.

In this photo taken shortly after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the O'Leary house, center, still stands, but only rubble is left of its barn, right.

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#35 The shell of St. Paul’s Universalist Church after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

The shell of St. Paul's Universalist Church after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

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#36 The Great Central Station, south facade, following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

The Great Central Station, south facade, following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

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#37 Engine Company No. 7 was stationed in Blue Island Avenue near Harrison Street, when the Great Chicago Fire started in 1871.

Engine Company No. 7 was stationed in Blue Island Avenue near Harrison Street, when the Great Chicago Fire started in 1871.

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#38 An unidentified location in Chicago in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

An unidentified location in Chicago in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

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#39 The Chicago Tribune building stands at the southeast corner of Dearborn and Madison streets after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The Chicago Tribune building stands at the southeast corner of Dearborn and Madison streets after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

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#40 View of Schock, Bigford, and Company, the first store opened in the burnt district after the Chicago Fire of 1871.

View of Schock, Bigford, and Company, the first store opened in the burnt district after the Chicago Fire of 1871.

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#41 The wreckage of St. James Episcopal Church looking north on Rush Street from Huron Street in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

The wreckage of St. James Episcopal Church looking north on Rush Street from Huron Street in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

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#42 The view of the ruins of the Courthouse and City Hall after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

The view of the ruins of the Courthouse and City Hall after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

The ruins in the lower left face Randolph Street and show the post office and customs building.

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#43 St. Michael’s Church after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

St. Michael's Church after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

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#44 The ruins of Col. Woods museum on Randolph Street, between Clark and Dearborn streets after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

The ruins of Col. Woods museum on Randolph Street, between Clark and Dearborn streets after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

A hopeful sign announces the reopening of the Globe Theater

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#45 Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, rebuilding became a priority.

Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, rebuilding became a priority.

This view is looking east down Lake Street from LaSalle.

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#46 What remains of the courthouse and City Hall, looking north on Clark Street from Adams Street, in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

What remains of the courthouse and City Hall, looking north on Clark Street from Adams Street, in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

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#47 Ruins of the old Farewell (also sometimes spelled Farwell) Building on Washington Street after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Ruins of the old Farewell (also sometimes spelled Farwell) Building on Washington Street after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

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#48 Workers walk through the wreckage near the remains of the courthouse and City Hall, background, in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire.

Workers walk through the wreckage near the remains of the courthouse and City Hall, background, in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire.

Slow camera shutter speeds of the era make the people appear ghostly.

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#49 A view looking north at Franklin and Madison streets in Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

A view looking north at Franklin and Madison streets in Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

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#50 The First National Bank building stands in ruins at State and Washington streets after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

The First National Bank building stands in ruins at State and Washington streets after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

The Field, Leiter & Co. store, which became Marshall Field & Co., lay in ruins. More than 17,000 buildings were destroyed, including the business district of Chicago.

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#51 The view looking directly north from the Water Tower after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Photo taken circa 1871-1872.

The view looking directly north from the Water Tower after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Photo taken circa 1871-1872.

This is one of a series of views documenting the progress of rebuilding from the top of the Water Tower. The lake shore is visible on the right, and Lincoln Park is straight ahead.

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#52 Two boys sit on top of a partial stone wall in the wreckage of a burned-out building at Madison and Clark Streets, with the Court House in the background following the fire.

Two boys sit on top of a partial stone wall in the wreckage of a burned-out building at Madison and Clark Streets, with the Court House in the background following the fire.

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#53 Flames razed the stores and hotels along North Wabash and Michigan avenues and left the shell of the Illinois Central station in the background after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Flames razed the stores and hotels along North Wabash and Michigan avenues and left the shell of the Illinois Central station in the background after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

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#54 Holy Name Cathedral, left, and St. James Episcopal Church, right, lay in ruins after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Holy Name Cathedral, left, and St. James Episcopal Church, right, lay in ruins after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

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#55 “Map Showing the Burnt District in Chicago” shows the level of destruction of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.

"Map Showing the Burnt District in Chicago" shows the level of destruction of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.

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Written by Aung Budhh

Husband + Father + librarian + Poet + Traveler + Proud Buddhist. I love you with the breath, the smiles and the tears of all my life.

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