“Hardly any rain had fallen on Chicago for months, and the drought was getting worse. Over the 22 days leading up to October 8, 1871, it had rained only once — a measly 0.11 inches. ‘Under the burning sun for so many weeks, the whole city became virtually a tinderbox,’ recalled William Bross, one of the Chicago Tribune’s owners.
“A mere 35 years earlier, Chicago had been a frontier outpost with a few thousand inhabitants, but now it was the commercial metropolis at the heart of the Midwest, growing at an astonishing pace as it drew people from around the country and from Europe, mostly German and Irish immigrants.
“By 1870, it was the United States’ fifth-largest city, with a population of 300,000. And for the most part, it was made of wood. ‘Lumber was cheaper than brick and was more easily procured and more rapidly handled,’ the Tribune would observe in 1872. ‘In a city where time was everything and durability was not a matter much considered, street after street was lined with wooden buildings.’
“Forest and prairie fires were frequent in 1871 across a vast swath of the country’s northern regions, from the Rocky Mountains to upstate New York. During the first week of October, the Chicago Fire Department fought more than two dozen fires, wearing out the city’s approximately 190 firefighters and their horse-drawn equipment. They had 17 steam fire engines — three of which were out for repairs — along with four hook-and-ladder wagons and six carts that carried reels of fire hose.
“Nearly the entire department spent the night of Saturday, October 7, battling a blaze that burned down four square blocks just west of the Chicago River’s South Branch and north of Van Buren Street. Many firefighters were still working at the smoldering site Sunday afternoon. Some had been on the job for 18 hours. ‘The men were exhausted, and some of the engines were in bad condition,’ said Robert A. Williams, who’d been Chicago’s chief fire marshal since 1868. ‘The supply of hose was inefficient.’ They’d barely had a chance to rest when another fire broke out Sunday night, in a barn half a mile south of Saturday night’s burning. After that, as firefighter Leo Meyers recalled, ‘everything went wrong.’
“Over the next 30 hours, that fire would grow and grow, roaring across roughly three square miles in the heart of Chicago, killing hundreds of people and destroying 17,450 buildings — causing more property damage than any fire before it in America. As Chicago marks the disaster’s 150th anniversary, the fire remains the most famous event in the city’s history.
“This is the story of the Great Chicago Fire, as told by people who lived through it. Their words are from letters, memoirs, oral histories, newspaper articles and books of the time, and testimony at a city inquiry in 1871 (which Richard F. Bales transcribed for his 2002 book on the fire and donated to the Chicago History Museum). The quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and length; language of the era has been left intact.
The Great Chicago Fire, As Told By Those Who Lived Through It; As the city marks the 150th anniversary of the defining event, Robert Loerzel mines the archival record to offer a compelling portrait of what it was like to live through those disastrous days, Robert Loerzel, Chicago Magazine, 9/21/21
Flashback: ‘More dead than alive:’ Chicago Tribune staffers recount how they labored to save their building — and get the paper out — during the Great Chicago Fire, Kori Rumore, Chicago Tribune, 10/1/21