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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Great Chicago Fire

Chicago Tribune, 11 October 1871

At about 9:00 PM on 8 October 1871, a fire broke out in Patrick and Catherine O'Leary's barn behind 137 DeKoven Street, at the corner of Jefferson Street. Mrs. O'Leary's cow was blamed for starting the fire; it had allegedly kicked over a lantern. Mrs. O'Leary denied this claim; she stated that she had been in bed at the time the fire started. The true cause of the fire is unknown, but it did start in the O'Learys' barn. The legend of Mrs. O'Leary's cow has persisted in popular culture. The Web of Memory section of The Great Chicago Fire & the Web of Memory includes images from popular culture, advertisements based on the legend, and a satirical poem published by the Insurance Monitor in 1872.

An image of Catherine O'Leary's cottage on DeKoven Street in Chicago, 1871. By A.H. Abbott, Photographer (Stereoptican card) [Public domain]. Available from Wikimedia Commons.

Chicago had experienced a hot, dry, summer. There had been little rainfall since July 4, and there was only 0.11 inch of rain between September 17 and October 8. Homes and buildings were made of wood. Strong winds from the southwest rapidly spread the fire through the poor Irish neighborhood Conley's Patch, and then through the Chicago business district. 

The Great Chicago Fire, an artists rendering, Chicago in Flames -- The Rush for Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge. By John R. Chapin, died 1907 (Originally from Harper's Weekly, 1871.) [Public domain]. Available from Wikimedia Commons.

Chicago Tribune, 11 October 1871

Prairie Farmer, 14 October 1871. Available from Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections.

By the evening of October 9, it began to rain and the fire had started to burn itself out. The burned area of the city was four miles long and one mile wide. 17,500 buildings were destroyed. 90,000 people were left homeless.

My 3rd-great-grandparents John Bennet Winters and Anna "Ann" (Walker) Winters and their daughter, my 2nd-great-grandmother Catherine Elizabeth Winters, had lived at 247 S. Jefferson before the fire, but were not found at that address after the fire. They lived at the edge of the burnt district. They were probably affected by the fire and had to move.

My Graham ancestors may have been affected as well. I still do not have enough evidence to be sure that I have found the right family, but if I have, my 2nd-great-grandfather James Graham's father was William M. Graham, and the family was living at 97 W. Harrison in 1870.

To the Homeless of the Chicago Fire.Chicago History Museum. [Public domain.] Available from Wikimedia Commons.

Prairie Farmer, 16 December 1871. Available from Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections.

Bales, Richard F. The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.
Sawislak, Karen. Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.