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This Day in Weather History: October 8th

The Great Chicago Fire begins, more than 17,000 buildings would be destroyed

It was on this day in 1871, that the Great Chicago Fire began. It was a fire that would last nearly three days and result in a 4 by 3/4 mile wide swath of destruction. The fire was claimed to have started in a barn owned by the O’Leary family. A popular legend says that Catherine O’Leary was milking a cow and the cow kicked over a lantern.

Original caption: Illustration of Chicago Fire: How it started. Mrs. O'Leary's cow upset an oil lamp.  Undated illustration.  BPA2#5175. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Original caption: Illustration of Chicago Fire: How it started. Mrs. O'Leary's cow upset an oil lamp. Undated illustration. BPA2#5175. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS (© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.)

This O’Leary family denied the story and said they were in bed at the time. Regardless, it had a been a long, hot summer marked by a historic drought. As a result, the fire spread quickly, aided by a city built mainly by wood. Firefighters were quickly overwhelmed and the fire would last nearly 3 days. In all, more than 2,000 acres were scorched, along with 17,500 buildings. The death tool is estimated to be as high as 300. A bronze sculpture sits at the location of the origin of the fire.

The Currier & Ives lithograph shows people fleeing across the Randolph Street Bridge.
The Currier & Ives lithograph shows people fleeing across the Randolph Street Bridge.

Meantime, it was not the only fire that started that day. An even larger fire started in the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. It is estimated to have killed as many as 2,500 people and burned 1.5 million acres. It remains the most deadly wildfire in recorded United States history.


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