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The Great Chicago Fire of 1871


Part 2: The Aftermath

Residents fled their homes, carrying cherished or sometimes strange possessions, huddling on the shores of Lake Michigan and watching some of the city's most famous buildings go up in smoke. The strong winds helped spread the fire through the west side and carried sparks to other areas of the city.

Overnight, 17,000 buildings were destroyed. A total of 300 people died, and a full one-third of the city's nearly 300,000 residents lost their homes. Damage estimates topped $200 million.

Ironically, the one thing that helped stopped the fire more than anything else was a rainstorm the following day.

The resulting chaos convinced city leaders to ask for federal help, and President Ulysses S. Grant responded by sending in six companies of federal troops, under the command of Civil War General Phillip Sheridan. Martial law was declared, and four of the six companies stayed for the rest of the year (although martial law was lifted before then).

Federal aid and other help poured in, and the city began to rebuild itself, in the process building some of the country's most iconic buildings.

The lessons learned in Chicago were spoken of around the country. The businessmen who refused to pay to help upgrade the city's poorly staffed and even more poorly equipped fire department stepped in and helped rebuild the city.

And what of Mrs. O'Leary? Well, Catherine O'Leary was blamed for having caused the fire (cow or no cow) by two leading newspapers of the day. The story of the cow and the lantern made the rounds even while the fire was raging. She was eventually exonerated, though. You can read her actual testimony here.

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