Oct. 8 in Labor History: The Great Chicago Fire

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The Great Chicago Fire burned from Sunday Oct. 8 to Tuesday, Oct. 10, 1871, killing hundreds and destroying 3.3 square miles in Chicago. The rebuilding after the disaster, however, saw the growth of Chicago into one of the most economically important cities in the world.

Although the first building that burned was a barn on DeKoven Street there is no evidence that it was started by a cow kicking over a lantern, the traditional story now known to have been the imagination of a reporter.

The fire spread because there had been a long drought, the city was built mostly of wood and there were strong winds out of the southwest on a dry, hot day. All the sidewalks and roads were also made of wood.

In addition to 300 dead there were 100,000 left homeless. When the fire destroyed the waterworks, the city's water supply was cut off and the firefighters were forced to give up. The damage done surpassed Napoleon's siege of Moscow in 1812.

The story about Catherine O'Leary was a reflection of prejudice against the Irish immigrant workers and their families who were frequently scapegoated for political and economic reasons.

Another story circulated during the fire was that Daniel "Peg leg" Sullivan ignited hay in another barn while he was stealing milk.

An alternative story that did not scapegoat Irish immigrants was that the fire was started by a meteor shower. The story was that Biela's Comet broke up over the Midwest. Those who believed that explanation pointed to a rash of wildfires in Illinois and Wisconsin on the day of the Chicago fire.

Some 250 miles to the north on the same day the Peshtigo Fire killed 2,500 in the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, huge fires destroyed much of Urbana, Illinois, and the Michigan towns of Port Huron and Singapore, along with Windsor, Ontario, all on Oct. 8.

 

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