The Great Chicago Fire

Although this story is fiction, both Jack Chaps and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 are real. This book highlights the mystery surrounding the start of that fateful fire so long ago.

The fire did indeed start in the barn of Mrs. Cate O’Leary, located at 137 DeKoven Street, but no one knows exactly how. Within hours, however, rumors had spread, as fast as the fire, that Mrs. O’Leary and her cow were to blame. The first newspaper to print the story was the Chicago Evening Journal, which, on October 9, 1871, reported that: “the fire broke out on the corner of DeKoven and Twelfth streets, at about 9 o’clock on Sunday evening, being caused by a cow kicking over a lamp in a stable in which a woman was milking.” Not only is it unclear how the fire started, it is unclear how the story of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow came about. Chicagoans wanted someone to blame for the destruction of their city. Given the newspapers’ tendency to fabricate stories and the strong sentiments against Irish immigrants at the time, the O’Learys were prime scapegoats.

In November of 1871, one month after the fire, Chicago authorities finally conducted an official investigation into the fire’s cause and essentially declared Mrs. O’Leary and her cow innocent. Regarding the Great Fire, the report concluded: “ . . . whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night, or was set on fire by human agency, we are unable to determine.” Sadly, the official report came too late to salvage the O’Leary family’s reputation, and the legend persisted.

Modern historians have discredited the O’Leary legend and have proposed other possibilities for the fire. Some historians, for example, believe that Daniel “Peg Leg” Sullivan, a neighbor of the O’Learys, started the fire; others believe that neighbor boys, while shooting dice in the barn, knocked over a lantern; and, still, others, that the fire was caused by a comet. In October 1997, the Chicago City Council officially declared Mrs. O’Leary and her cow innocent of starting the fire.

One thing is clear. Chicago was never the same afterwards. Although the fire destroyed approximately three-square miles of the city and left many people homeless, Chicago and its citizens did not let that stop their progress. The city recovered with incredible speed. Some building owners were collecting bricks left over from the fire before they had even cooled. Chicagoans rebuilt the city, bolder and grander, with modern architecture and skyscrapers, including William Le Baron Jenney’s Manhattan Building and Burnham & Root’s Rookery and Monadnock Buildings. Many people from all over the world came to live in the city, and Chicago was once again an important Midwestern hub for culture, trade, and transportation. Only 22 years after the fire, in 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Fair (also called the World’s Columbian Exposition), which celebrated the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America. The World’s Fair was proof that Chicago was the come-back-kid among cities.

We hope that you will come and visit the new and rebuilt Second City of today, with its fascinating history, magnificent city skyline, beautiful Lake Michigan, kind-hearted people, and abundant culture.