October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
On the evening of October 7, Chicago firemen were summoned to the Lull and Holmes planing mill just west of downtown. There they encountered the latest and biggest in a series of fires the city had seen during an unusually dry summer and fall. Before the blaze was extinguished, fifteen hours later, more than half the 185-man department had been dispatched to the site. With twenty acres destroyed and damages estimated at a million dollars, it was the worst fire in Chicago’s history. That record held up for less than a day.
The next evening, around a quarter of nine, a fresh load of hay caught on fire in Catherine and Patrick O’Leary’s barn at the corner of DeKoven and Jefferson streets. A tale sprang up almost instantly that one of their milk cows had kicked over a lantern, but there is no evidence for this; other possible explanations include arson, spontaneous combustion, and a discarded cigar or cigarette. Whatever the cause, high winds swiftly spread the flames, and the fire department, weary from the previous night’s marathon effort, was slow to respond. The first company to reach the site attacked the wrong end of the fire, while the second one found its steam pumper broken and without fuel. By the time the whole department could be mobilized, the blaze was out of control. A couple of hours later a gasworks exploded, intensifying the conflagration, and then at 7:00 A.M. hydrants ran dry when the city waterworks caught fire. From then on, all anyone could do was pray for rain.
The rain finally arrived late in the evening of the ninth, and around three o’clock the next morning the fire at last went out. Dazed residents combed through Chicago’s smoldering embers and totaled up the devastation. According to the best estimates, the fire destroyed nearly 17,500 buildings in an area of about 2,500 acres, leaving 90,000 people homeless. About 300 Chicagoans died, and property damage was perhaps $200 million.
These statistics make Chicago’s conflagration the second-biggest fire of its day—that is, the second-biggest fire of October 8, 1871. On the same evening, at almost the same hour as the O’Leary barn went up, a forest fire of unimaginable intensity erupted near the lumber-milling town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, about 220 miles to the north. The pinewoods had seen no rain for three months and had been plagued with numerous small fires, which residents had managed to extinguish. This time, though, fire broke out in several places at once and was fanned by the same southwest wind that had spread the Chicago blaze. It flowed through the treetops so fast that fighting it or trying to run away was useless.
The first flames reached Peshtigo around nine o’clock. Ten minutes later the village and half its residents had been incinerated. Some saved themselves by jumping into the Peshtigo River, while others lay low in nearby marshland. Those overtaken by the flames, or unlucky enough to be trapped in buildings, were quickly reduced to heaps of ashes. Although Peshtigo’s property damage was about $5 million, mild by comparison with Chicago’s, the death toll was much higher—around 1,200 to 1,500, as near as anyone can guess. About 2,000 square miles—or 1.3 million acres—were devastated along the west shore of Green Bay and on the nearby Door Peninsula.
Despite its deaths, the story of the Chicago fire is inspiring. There’s the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, the courthouse officials who released prisoners from the basement jail just before the building collapsed, Phil Sheridan bringing in troops to maintain order, and most of all the city’s phoenixlike rebirth, which gave rise to the modern skyscraper. The Peshtigo fire, by contrast, is simply horrifying. The entire modern city of Chicago stands as a monument to its great conflagration. In Peshtigo a modest plaque marks the mass grave of hundreds of unidentified victims.