Category: Archive

Hibernian Chronicle 129 Years Ago: Great Chicago Fire

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

One hundred twenty nine years ago this week, on Oct. 8, 1871, a small fire broke out in the O’Leary barn at 137 DeKoven St. in Chicago. No one noticed the flames until the fire was well under way. To compound matters, a mix up by the fire department dispatcher caused the emergency call to be forwarded to a fire company over a mile away. When they finally arrived, several adjacent buildings were fully engaged and a steady wind was spreading the flames at a rapid pace. The Great Chicago Fire had begun.

Chicago officials had been worrying about the threat of a big fire for months. Only five inches of rain had fallen since July and the largely wooden city was dry as a bone. Many thought the Big One had occurred just a day before Oct. 8 when four blocks were destroyed on the West Side. Little did they know.

The fire that started in the O’Leary barn the next evening quickly grew into an inferno. Flames as high as 500 feet fanned by 70-mile-per-hour winds roared through the West Side and soon jumped the Chicago River. From there it moved through the South Side and into the downtown central business district. The heat from the flames grew so intense that sap-filled trees exploded and metal structures melted like butter.

By the next afternoon, Oct. 9, four square miles of Chicago lay in ashes. More than 300 people were dead and 100,000 left homeless. Property damage, including the loss of 17,500 buildings, was estimated at $200 million. Strangely, while their barn was destroyed, the O’Leary’s house was left untouched.

Almost as soon as it was over, stunned Chicago residents began to look about for a cause. More precisely, they searched for someone to shoulder the blame for the great tragedy. They found their scapegoat in Kate O’Leary. Journalists and cartoonists depicted her as a contemptible Irish hag from the West Side slums who had carelessly left a burning lantern in the barn with her cow. According to the story, her cow kicked over the unattended lantern and started the fire.

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The details of the story didn’t matter as much as the overall message: the Irish did it. Just as they had been blamed for the city’s worsening housing conditions, rising crime, and outbreaks of epidemic disease, the Irish were now blamed for the fire. The story of Kate O’Leary and her cow was simply social shorthand for a larger story of ethnic and religious animosity. O’Leary became a symbol of the city’s fear and dislike of its growing Irish population.

In truth, no one knows the origin of the fire. It seems certain that it did start in the O’Leary barn, but the precise cause was never determined. The most likely scenario suggests that a neighbor, Dan "Pegleg" Sullivan, who had a cow of his own in the barn, may have dropped a match or pipe ash in the straw while milking. Another story popularized years later by the O’Leary’s son, the famous Chicago gambler James "Big Jim" O’Leary, argued that the fire was started by tramps smoking behind the barn. Whatever the source, it seems clear that Mrs. O’Leary was nowhere near the barn when the fire started.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the great fire is the speed with which Chicago recovered. Donations and help poured in from all over the country and rebuilding began almost immediately. Within five years much of downtown Chicago was reconstructed. The bustling city of 334,000 in 1871 grew rapidly to more than one million by 1890, making it the second largest city in the nation. Three years later, the city hosted the spectacular World’s Fair known as the Columbian Exposition.

For Kate O’Leary, the story was not so pleasant. Singled out as the cause of the fire, she was forced to move. She and her husband spent the rest of their lives avoiding the public eye and denying that they had caused the fire. Generations later, historians unearthed enough evidence — including confessions by two journalists in 1891 that they had concocted much of the Mrs. O’Leary story — to prompt the Chicago City Council to vote in 1997 to exonerate O’Leary of all blame. It was an appropriate gesture, but one made 126 years too late.


Oct. 5, 1930: Father Coughlin, "The Radio Priest," airs his first radio broadcast. His populist speeches earns him a nationwide following by the mid-1930s, but his turn to anti-Semitism eventually leads to his removal.

Oct. 5, 1968: In one of the first major clashes of the Troubles, a march by 500 members of The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in Derry is attacked by the RUC.

Oct. 6, 1891: Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell dies.

Oct. 8, 1904: George M. Cohan’s musical "Little Johnny Jones" opens in Hartford, Conn. It becomes an instant success with the hit song "Give My Regards to Broadway."

Oct. 9, 1946: Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, "The Iceman Cometh," opens at Martin Beck Theater in New York City.


Oct. 4, 1889: Olympic rowing champion and father of Grace Kelly, John B. Kelly, born in Philadelphia.

Oct. 4, 1851: Nationalist John Dillon born in Blackrock, Co. Dublin.

Oct. 5, 1923: Militant priest Philip Berrigan born in Virginia, Minn.

Oct. 7, 1935: Author Thomas Keneally born in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

Oct. 9, 1903: Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley born in the Bronx.

Oct. 10, 1900: Actress Helen Hayes born in Washington, D.C.

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