Friday, October 08, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Great Chicago Fire


Legend has it that on this day in 1871 Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern in a barn and started the Great Chicago Fire, which over the course of three days would eventually destroy four square miles of the city's historic downtown; so devastating was the conflagration that only six buildings within the disaster area survived, including the newly built Chicago Water Tower, St. Michael's Church, and the O'Leary family home as well as their house of worship, Holy Family Parish.

The fire was not, however, started by Mrs. O'Leary's cow; in 1893 the reporter who wrote that story, Michael Ahern, admitted to making it up because he claimed it made for more compelling reading. The real reason for Ahern's deception may have simply been the usual anti-immigrant rhetoric still favoured today; ironically, O'Leary's cow (and by extension its owners) made the ideal scapegoats. Whatever Ahern's reasons for saying so, the fire may indeed have started in a small shed behind 137 DeKoven Street owned by the very same Patrick and Catherine O'Leary whose cow has borne the blame lo these many years.

Then again, it may have been Daniel 'Pegleg' Sullivan's and Louis M. Cohn's craps game - which apparently took place in the O'Leary barn as well* - that started the blaze; the most out of the world theory, though, has it that the fire was caused by the breakup of Biela's Comet over the American Midwest. Credence for this theory derives from the fact that four major fires all started at roughly the same time on the same day - one in Chicago, one in the Wisconsin town of Peshtigo, and two in Michigan (Holland and Manistee). A fifth fire swept along the shore of Lake Huron and destroyed the town of Port Huron along with its nearby neighbour White Rock. Despite the damage caused in Chicago (and even, in April 1906, in San Francisco) the Peshtigo Fire remains the deadliest in US history; in addition to 1.5 million acres of forest and a total of twelve towns burned, and as many as 2,500 people died.

Although founded in August 1833 with a population of 350 and only incorporated in March 1837, Chicago's population at the time of the fire was 300,000 - of whom 90,000 were left homeless with winter fast approaching. Despite a remarkably modest death toll of 2-300, only 125 bodies were recovered from the ashes. While the people of America responded with their usual generosity to the fire's victims with gifts of clothing, blankets, and food, the business community responded in its usual way too - with rapacious land speculation. By the dawn of the 20th Century the ramshackle wooden city of old had been replaced by a modern skyline of towers, many of which are today considered among the most beautiful and accomplished skyscrapers in the world.

Chicago's Great Fire has not been overly represented in pop culture over the years; among the only (as well as least accurate) depiction is the 1937 film In Old Chicago, with Alice Brady playing Mrs. O'Leary; the fire's presumed culprit was the subject of a song by The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, Mrs. O'Leary's Cow, which appears on his landmark 2004 album SMiLE (begun in 1966).

*One of the O'Leary children - James Patrick O'Leary - later grew up to run a Chicago gambling hall.

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Niall said...

Hi Michael,

Interesting theory here says it was caused by the tail of a passing comet:

michael sean morris said...

Yes, Biela's Comet, which I mentioned in the third paragraph.