Currier & Ives lithograph showing people fleeing the Great Chicago Fire of 1871
The Great Chicago Fire burned October 8 to 10, 1871, in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago, with its frequent high winds and countless wooden structures, was prone to fires even before the “Great Fire” tore through the city. However, none was so destructive as this one. It ultimately killed 300 people and destroyed more than 17,000 buildings.
Cause of the Fire
The fire is commonly believed to have started in a cow barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary around 9 p.m. on October 8, 1871. Although folklore states that the fire began when Catherine’s cow kicked over an oil lamp, no one really knows how the fire actually began.
Great Chicago Fire Starts
The weather had been unusually hot and dry in Chicago, and in a city predominately built with wood, that meant the fire spread quickly. Despite the efforts of the fire department, the fire raged throughout the night, even jumping the river. Firefighters tried to fight the massive flames with their fire hoses until the city’s waterworks burned, cutting off that supply of water.
The huge fire burned for about another 24 hours essentially unchecked—consuming a large portion of the city, residential and business districts alike—until it began to burn itself out on the night of the 9th. A light rainstorm that same night helped douse the remaining flames.
By the 10th, when the fire was finally out, an area about 4 miles long and almost a mile wide had been burned to the ground, leaving 100,000 people homeless. Help came from cities, businesses, and individuals across the country, who donated money and food to the beleaguered city.
Despite the devastation caused by Chicago’s fire, reconstruction (this time using less wood) began almost immediately. Within a little more than 20 years, Chicago rose from its ashes to become a booming city able to host the 1893 World’s Fair.
Learn more about the Great Chicago Fire through historical newspapers from our archives. Explore newspaper articles, headlines, images, and other primary sources below.
Articles and Clippings about the Great Chicago Fire
Chicago experiences another large fire the day before the Great Chicago Fire began Sun, Oct 8, 1871 – 3 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.comMap of the "burnt district" of Chicago following the 1871 Great Chicago Fire Tue, Oct 10, 1871 – Page 1 · The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.comReactions from cities around the United States to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 Tue, Oct 10, 1871 – Page 1 · Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.comNewspaper description of the city of Chicago as it stood before the Great Fire of 1871 Tue, Oct 10, 1871 – Page 2 · The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois) · Newspapers.comExcerpt from editorial discussing what lessons other cities can learn from the Great Chicago Fire Tue, Oct 10, 1871 – Page 2 · The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois) · Newspapers.comChicago Tribune front page newspaper coverage and headlines about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 Wed, Oct 11, 1871 – 1 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.comAccounts of some of the victims killed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 Wed, Oct 11, 1871 – 1 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.comNotices to people made homeless by the 1871 fire about where to find help and services Wed, Oct 11, 1871 – 2 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.comNewspaper lists some of the aid, money, and supplies sent to Chicago from outside cities Wed, Oct 11, 1871 – 2 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.comChicago residents encouraged to take advantage of railroads' offer of free passage out of the city Wed, Oct 11, 1871 – 2 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.comExcerpt from an editorial attesting to the resilience of Chicago residents following the 1871 fire Wed, Oct 11, 1871 – 1 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.comEditorial declaring that "Chicago shall rise again" after Great Chicago Fire of 1871 Wed, Oct 11, 1871 – 2 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.comPolice and soldiers under General Sheridan patrol Chicago streets after 1871 fire to preserve order Thu, Oct 12, 1871 – 1 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.comNewspaper lists a few of the victims who were injured or killed in the Great Chicago Fire Fri, Oct 13, 1871 – 2 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.comBritish newspaper account of a public meeting held in Manchester in 1871 about the Chicago fire Tue, Oct 17, 1871 – 6 · The Guardian (London, Greater London, England) · Newspapers.comCanadian newspaper carries news of Chicago's early recovery efforts following the 1871 fire Sat, Oct 21, 1871 – 2 · Ottawa Daily Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) · Newspapers.comNewspaper article about Catherine O’Leary's death in 1895; denied responsibility for the fire Fri, Jul 5, 1895 – Page 7 · The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) · Newspapers.comDetroit firefighter tells of his experiences fighting the Great Chicago Fire Sun, Mar 17, 1901 – Page 40 · Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) · Newspapers.comMan who lived through Chicago Fire as a teen gives an eyewitness account of his experiences Sat, Oct 8, 1938 – 14 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.comEyewitness account of man who lived through the Great Chicago Fire as a boy Thu, May 24, 1945 – Page 3 · The Bend Bulletin (Bend, Oregon) · Newspapers.comPicture of destruction caused to a building by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 Tue, Oct 8, 1996 – Page 22 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.com