For all those who Fight the 'Fires', lives are put on the line...victims and firefighters. In the 21st century, firefighters are more efficiently equipped to handle such a disaster than was the case in the 1800s. People are also properly educated as well as homes and buildings being better constructed. Fire retardant materials prevalent today were unheard of in the 19th century. So, when fire spread through the windy city of Chicago, ILL on this day in 1871, there was little alternative other than to watch it burn, burn, burn.
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The exact cause remains a matter of speculation. The spark that ignited the fire did start in the O'Leary barn with the most famous legend still being questioned, Did the Cow Do It? Regardless whether by cow, human hands or possibly a comet, with buildings, homes, streets and sidewalks predominantly constructed of wood, climate under drought conditions, and the usual wind in the city, the fire left four square miles of Chicago, including the business district, in ruins.
Some reports call this event 'spectacular', which seems a bit out of place considering the devastation. The two-day blaze caused the death of between 200-300 people, destroyed 17,450 buildings, left 100,000 homeless, and caused an estimated $200 million in damages (That dollar figure is the value in 1871. In 2007 dollars, the figure equated to $3 billion.) Yet, out of the ashes came immense economic and population growth with architects laying the foundation for a modern city featuring the world's first skyscrapers.
Chicago's Home Insurance Building in 1884,
often considered the world's first skyscraperAt the time of the fire, Chicago's population was approximately 324,000; within nine years, there were 500,000 Chicagoans. By 1893, the city was a major economic and transportation hub with an estimated population of 1.5 million. That same year, Chicago was chosen to host the World's Columbian Exposition, also known as The Chicago World's Fair, a major tourist attraction visited by 27.5 million people, or approximately half the U.S. population at the time.
Out of this unfortunate incident evolved many cultural references. According to Wikipedia, popular culture, such as Gary Larson's cartoon The Far Side, Brian Wilson's song "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow", the song "The Chicken or the Egg" from The Easter Bunny Is Comin' to Town, Rita Hayworth's song "Put the Blame on Mame" from the movie Gilda, and even Quentin Tarantino's debut film Reservoir Dogs have referred to the story with the expectation that the populace will understand the reference.
- Late one night, when we were all in bed,
- Old Mother Leary left a lantern in the shed;
- And when the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said,
- "There'll be a hot time in the old town, tonight."