The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

Imagine being stuck and trapped, someplace where escaping was not an option. People in their homes and buildings in Chicago were feeling like that because of to the Great Chicago Fire. The fire started on October 8th and ended two days later. The fire destroyed many buildings, homes and even took some lives. During the fire people realized wooden buildings burned very quickly. By the time the fire had been noticed by the town’s people it was too late. Overnight the fire had grown twice as much and had already burnt down half of the neighborhood.

This traumatic event and the events afterwards led to severe changes to the town and made people rethink about their homes, damaged the town and eventually led to the Great Rebuilding.

The fire started in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary when a cow that knocked over a lantern in the middle of the night. Dry weather and an abundance of wooden buildings, streets and sidewalks made Chicago vulnerable to the fire and they simply disappeared into piles of ash.

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Many other buildings such as the business district, government buildings, newspaper companies, hotels and just about all major businesses also disappeared. The fire was made so much worse than it should have been because of the fire devils which spit burning debris in all directions causing more buildings to burn. Another reason the architecture was affected so badly was the high amount of winds on the first night of the fire that shot high into the sky.

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Some other structures that were sturdier because they were made out of brick or stone were charred ruins. The Water Works was a building that had wooden roofing shingles so when the burning embers struck the roof, the Water Works was destroyed and the main source of water for the city’s under staffed fire department was cut off (Schons).

The people of the town of Chicago had houses made out of wood. Wood at the time of the fire was vulnerable to the fire and the winds, even with the one single layer of fireproof material on the outside. After the fire, the town’s people replaced wood with stone and and builders decorated their buildings and homes with wooden awnings and cornices. Many contractors would meet with townspeople and businessmen to decide how to they would like to redesign their buildings. Many of the architects would work to meet the demands of businessmen rather than the townspeople. The businessmen liked the more plain-looking buildings. More expensive than wood, this expensive substance called mortar, is held together by a sticky substance. Most people did not have the money or resources to have houses rebuilt or to have more expensive add ons. “Some of the richer people used something called Terra-Cotta.Terra-cotta clay emerged as a popular and effective building material. By the mid-1880s, Terra-cotta tiling made Chicago one of the most fireproof cities in the nation” (“Great Chicago Fire of 1871”

Damages to the town included leaving people homeless, destroying over 17,000 structures and buildings, burning over 3.5 square miles to the ground. After the fire ended the town had amassed over 200 million dollars in damages. Many of the damages to the town were more than anybody could handle. There were over 100,000 people that had homes taken away from them. The fire also destroyed over 17,000 structures and buildings that included schools, work places, and many town buildings. Unfortunately,as a result of the damage, the town was 200 million dollars in debt. Many people who were not harmed in the fire helped out with the cost to help others. Even some of the richer people who lost their homes helped other people in the 3.5 square miles of the town. Other buildings still stood after the fire but most were burnt down. “While the fire had devastated the downtown and North Side of Chicago, the stockyards and lumber yards on the South and West sides remained intact”(Chicago Fire of 1871” Britannica).

The Great Rebuilding was an effort to construct a new urban center. The fire started in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary when a cow that knocked over a lantern in the middle of the night. The fire was about 3.5 square miles across town. After the town approved and a law was passed that new buildings needed to be built with fireproof material. This new material was very expensive, and so many people could not afford this material. It consisted of brick, stone, marble and limestone. Construction began before architects and engineers had finished the design. “Some people had problems with the way some officials ran the rebuilding. Other people had a problem with the way there building and homes were being rebuilt” (“Chicago Fire of 1871” Britannica). Many others just let the process happen since they were getting new homes and had jobs due to the Great Rebuilding.

This traumatic event and the events afterwards led to severe changes to the town and made people rethink about their homes, damaged the town and eventually led to the Great Rebuilding. The fire may of caused people to rebuild but not rethink. Most people eventually just rebuilt there homes the same exact way. The city rebuilt quickly, and by 1880 its population had reached a half million. This tragedy that truck to the Chicago town was devastating but people realized how they needed to change in order to be safe.Many waited for the right time to rebuild. It was another 10-15 years before the earliest large 8 to 10 stories, with structural steel frames, elevators and innovative foundations would come to replace those first post-fire buildings.Many were scared to rebuild again after this tragedy. That's why many people use the new techniques that we still use today. but even now in the 21 st century we see that no one is ever ready for fire or what happens when it hits their homes.

Updated: Mar 25, 2022
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The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. (2022, Mar 25). Retrieved from

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 essay
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