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When Chicago Burned

July 2024
1min read

The whole center of the metropolis was ablaze: a hundred thousand people fled from their homes in panic

According to the legend, the cow kicked over a lantern, the lantern set fire to the shed, and the shed set fire to the rest of Chicago. Although Mrs. Patrick O’Leary later swore under oath that she took no lantern to her shed on the night of Sunday, October 8, 1871, many witnesses verified the ramshackle building on the West Side as the starting point of the great conflagration. It had been an excessively dry autumn, and nearly all the 300,000 people of the city lived in wooden houses. The fire department was acutely alerted to the danger —in fact, there had been a tremendous three-alarm fire on the West Side on Saturday, October 7. But what happened on Sunday night, and went on happening for over twenty-four hours, made that look like a bonfire. A stiff wind, blowing from the southwest, fanned the flames roaring through the tinder of dry wooden structures, and by the time the fire companies arrived in full strength the whole thing was already beyond control. Something like 18,000 buildings—the heart of the city—burned to cinders; nearly 100,000 people fled from homes to which they would never return. The remarkable thing is that so many got away unharmed: only an estimated three hundred perished. Citizens rushed pell-mell into the parks, and out to the edges of the city; thousands jammed the beaches along the edge of Lake Michigan. By Monday morning newspapers across the country were reporting the unparalleled disaster, and artists were hard at work attempting to catch some sense of its magnitude for the illustrated weeklies. In St. Louis, the artist-writer team of Alfred R. Waud and Ralph Keeler hastily boarded a train for Chicago to cover the story for Every Saturday (see frontispiece, page 2). They arrived while the fire was still burning in some areas. The sketches on these and the following six pages—owned by the Chicago Historical Society and published here for the first time—are Waud’s impressions of a great metropolis in the grip of terror.

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