Don't Have a Cow: Trivia Questions About the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

On October 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire started off in a small barn on DeKoven Street. When it was done, more than 100,000 people were without home and upwards of 120 people had died. See how much you know about the Great Chicago Fire...


Popular Culture Blames a Cow, but Who Really Got the Blame for the Fire? # A plausible criminal mastermind back in the late 1800's. The story of the fire claims that a cow in the barn of the O'Leary family had likely kicked over a lantern, setting the barn on fire. However, regardless of the exact starting point and whether evidence actually pointed to the cow itself, the main blame fell on the O'Learys, especially Catherine. She was vilified, portrayed as an ugly, bitter hag who'd set the fire deliberately, and she was asked to join the circus at one point (not out of admiration for any skills, but rather as an exhibit). Keep in mind there was no real evidence tying her specifically to the fire, she'd been asleep in her home by the barn when the fire started (and thus would have risked death if she'd started the fire herself), and investigators couldn't even pin the blame on the cow. However, anti-Irish sentiment, and likely a lot of misogyny, made Catherine the main target. It wasn't until 1997 that the city finally issued an official exoneration.

Who Else Was Blamed for the Fire? # Fires broke out simultaneously across Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, including the horrific Peshtigo Fire. Photo credit: Forest Service/Flickr. Investigators were unable to link the fire directly to the cow or Catherine, but they did investigate claims that people had broken into the barn. One neighbor claimed a strange man was in there, milking the cows; years later another man claimed he and his friends had broken in there to gamble, and they started the fire by accident. There were also rumors that a comet or meteorite had struck the barn, and surprisingly, this one could be a likely contender because, also on October 8, fires started in Peshtigo, Wisconsin; Holland, Michigan; Port Huron, Michigan; Manistee, Michigan; and Urbana, Illinois. In fact, the Peshtigo Fire was one of the deadliest fires in U.S. history, killing at least 1,200 people. It didn't get as much publicity, though, because it was a rural fire that spread over a great distance, rather than creating a massive fire in the center of a major population area (it also started at least an hour after the Chicago fire). Most of the people in the town of Peshtigo died from the fire or from the water in the river where they had gone to flee the flames. One claim was that the comet Biela, which had been a regular visitor in the skies but vanished after about 1852, had broken up and fallen to Earth. The 1997 investigation that led to the official exoneration of Catherine O'Leary and her cow found that two neighbors might have been in the barn as well, and they might have had something to do with it.


What Four Factors Contributed to the Spread of the Fire? At this point in time, Chicago was built mostly of wood -- even the sidewalks were wood. It was a terrific environment if you wanted fire to grow. The region was also in a drought and had seen little rain for several months, which meant everything was very dry. Another problem was that it was windy -- not much, but enough to spread flames, which moved toward the center of town -- and the fire department took nearly 20 minutes to get to the source of the fire. But what really didn't help was that the Chicago River was so oil-slicked and polluted that it actually caught fire itself, spreading the flames even further.

What Modern Invention Might Have Had a Very Different History if Not for the Fire? Chicago was rebuilt quickly and became a major population center, but not without some major changes. One was that new building codes prohibiting the use of wood came into effect. The poorer residents, who could afford only wood, fought to get the code changed, and they did win some rights to use wood. However, many others simply used wood to begin with, in violation of the law. Chicago became known for its terracotta roof tiles, which were fireproof. But what really changed the city during the "Great Rebuilding," as it's known, was the creation of the first skyscraper, built in 1884. This was the Home Insurance building, the first to use a steel frame.

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