Chicago: Ripe for a Fire

Photo Credit Chicago History Museum: The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory

Photo Credit Chicago History Museum: The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory

In October of 1871, Chicago was entering fall riding on a heat wave after a summer’s long drought.  Serious drought.  Less than five inches of rain in more than three months, with less than an inch in the month leading up to the fire.  This certainly effected more than the farmers who surrounded this growing metropolis.

What made this drought so problematic? The city was made, almost entirely, out of wood.    Wooden houses.  Wooden fences.  Wooden barns and outhouses.  Wooden sidewalks.  Wooden streets.  (Yep – mostly in the business district.) The sidewalks and streets were often raised because when it did rain, everything became mud.  The raised sidewalks, some as high as six feet, provided a chimney of air for a wayward spark.  The downtown buildings, some which claimed to be fireproof, were still made of wood.  They may have had a limestone or marble facade, but were wooden underneath.   That’s thirty-six square miles of parched wood.  Do you know that even some of the fire hydrants were wooden?

But there’s more!

It’s 1871 – which means wood burning stoves.  Every house by now would have started to gather its winter supply of wood and kindling, sawdust for tinder.  Kerosene or gas lamps lit the homes and the streets.  Hay, straw, and feed were kept to care for the animals.  Though having a horse was something reserved for the more well -to-do, most houses had some livestock.

Chicago was a bustling city, busy growing.  The business district was budding and there was much money for a serious entrepreneur to make.  Being nicely located at the foot of one of the great lakes, with a river that fed into it, Chicago became a nerve center for commerce in the short thirty-eight years since it became an organized village.  Soon it became a hub for railroad lines too.  What did Chicago have that was being shipped out everywhere?  Grain.  Coal.  LUMBER.  Yep, all flammable.

Robert Cromie, in his book, the Great Chicago Fire, wrote, “It might be said, with considerable justice, that Chicago specialized in the production, handling, and storage of combustible goods.”

So, yes, Chicago was ripe for a fire.  And it had many leading up to the great one.  Next time I’ll tell about Chicago’s biggest fire.  Well, it doesn’t still hold that title.  In fact, it only held that title for a mere six hours or so.

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