Today in History: The Great Fire of Chicago

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'This Day in History': 10/08/1871 - The Great Chicago Fire

144 years ago, the Great Fire of Chicago took over the city, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

The fire originated on October 8, 1871 and spanned over the course of two days. Its flames destroyed thousands of buildings, took the lives of an estimated 300 people and caused nearly $200 million in damages to Chicago.

The source of the fire has been a heated debate.

Rumor has it that the blaze began when a cow knocked over a lantern in a barn owned by Catherine O'Leary. However, a reporter admitted to making up the story. Anti-Irish attitudes at the time led to the legend taking off as people encouraged the scapegoating of the O'Leary family. Mrs. O'Leary and her cow were finally exonerated by the Chicago City Council in 1997.

Another theory from researchers suggests that the fire was caused by a disintegrating comet.

However, despite the havoc the blaze wreaked for the city, the Great Fire of Chicago is actually not the worst fire in United States history. In fact, it was not even the worst fire to occur that week.



The entire town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin was destroyed and upwards of 1,500 to 2,500 people were killed in the blaze. The firestorm caused the most deaths by fire in the country's history. Fires across Michigan also broke out that day, as well.

Despite all the controversy and events that accumulated that night, the Great Fire of Chicago is remembered because it occurred in one of the biggest and busiest industrialized cities at the time.

Extremely dry weather caused the fire to spread fast. Taking almost two full days to get under control, the blaze left four square miles of Chicago in ruins by October 10th. However, even though the Great Fire left almost 100,000 people homeless, the city's infrastructure remained largely intact.

Because Chicago was already a bustling symbol of American industrialism, reconstruction for the damage caused by the fire began quickly. Economic and population growth spurred the reconstruction efforts and architects began leaving their own marks on the city, designing skyscrapers that would eventually take its place on the city's skyline.

Within nine years of the Great Fire of Chicago, the population had grown from 324,000 to more than 500,000 and by 1893, the Windy City was well on its way to becoming a transportation hub with more than 1.5 million residents.

See images of The Great Fire of Chicago and the damage it left:
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1871: The Great Fire of Chicago
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Today in History: The Great Fire of Chicago
An Artist's conception shows people fleeing the downtown area of the city during the Chicago fire on Oct. 8, 1871 .. (AP Photo)
Bird's-eye view (by the Union Publishing Co.) looking west from Lake Michigan towards Chicago in flames during Great Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, 1872. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
Lithograph (published by the Kellogg & Buckeley Co.) of Kate O'Leary with her cow knocking over a lantern, the mythic start of the Great Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, early 1870s. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
Painting (by Julia Lemos) of people trying to escape burning buildings during the Great Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, 1912. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
Map showing the area affected by the Great Chicago Fire, October 1871. (Photo by Frederic Lewis/Getty Images)
Lithograph (after drawing by Louis Kurz) of a building on fire on Lake Street (between Market and Franklin Streets) during the Great Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, early 1870s. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
Illustration (byJohn R. Chapin) from Harper's Weekly of people on the Randolph Street bridge during the Great Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, October 28, 1871. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) people escaping (Photo by Gerstenberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Engraving shows firefighters as they battle a buring building during the Great Chicago Fire, which destroyed a large portion of the city, Chicago, Illinois, October 8, 1871. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)
This general view shows the Chicago Court house and downtown area in the aftermath of the fire in Chicago, Ill., 1871. (AP Photo)
Interior view, from North to South, of the Great Union Depot, following extensive damage from the Chicago Fire, Illinois, October 10th 1871. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
A man standing in the ruins of a stove warehouse, in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, October 10th 1871. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Lithograph (by Rufus Blanchard) of people rebuilding after Great Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, 1871. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
A view along a street of ruined buildings, in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, October 10th 1871. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Poster design for the Semi-Centennial Observance of the Great Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, 1921. Features the 'I Will' Maiden. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
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