Around 9 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, 1871, a small fire started on the city’s Southwest Side. Dry and windy conditions quickly fanned the flames driving the blaze out of control hurling giant fireballs through the air.
The destruction that followed was ultimately known, of course, as the Great Chicago Fire, which came on the heels of a very dry summer that had left the ground parched and ripe for disaster. The fire left at least 300 people dead, 100,000 people -- one-third of the city's 1871 population -- homeless and some $200 million worth of property completely leveled.
Monday marks the 141th anniversary of the blaze which, while devastating at the time, became a turning point in Chicago's history, earning the city an international reputation of a "place of opportunity, renewal, and future promise," as Karen Sawislak writes in the Encyclopedia of Chicago.
In honor of the anniversary, the Chicago History Museum has collected a series of photographs, drawings and more from the Great Chicago Fire.
Through Wednesday, the museum is offering its Chicago Fire iPhone app free of charge. Users of the app can tour the fire in the streets of Chicago today, view images and artwork, relive the historic timeline of events, and read over 20 eyewitness accounts.
All images appear courtesy of the CHM. Click here if you are interested in obtaining a copy of any of the museum's images included in the slideshow. Their call numbers have been included for your reference.
The Burnt District in Chicago, 3rd Edition
The fire burned a 3 and 1/3 square mile swath through the center of the city, destroying some 12,000 buildings and leaving 90,000 citizens homeless. R. P. Studley Company, 1871. (ICHi-02870)
The Great Fire in Chicago the Race for Life over Randolph Street Bridge
Kellogg & Bulkeley. Lithograph, c. 1872. (ICHi-63131)
The Fire Escape
Fires were common to all cites, but fireproof structures were still relatively rare. The dominance of wooden buildings in Chicago provided ready fuel for the fire. Even so-called fireproof constructions succumbed to the intense heat, as brick and stone were pulverized into dust and iron columns melted into pools of molten metal. Kellogg & Bulkeley. Lithograph, c. 1871. (ICHi-02963)
The Cause of the Great Chicago Fire
Mrs. Catherine O’Leary and her cow became scapegoats for the disaster, but were formally absolved by the city of Chicago in 1997. Kellogg & Buckeley, Lithograph, c. 1872 (ICHi- 34703)
Chicago in Flames
Union Publishing Company, Lithograph, c.1872. (ICHi-64423)
Rescue of Ladies from the Flames
Frank Luzerne, The Lost City! c.1872. (ICHi-63830)
Release All Prisoners
Shortly after midnight on October 9, 1871, Chicago’s courthouse caught fire. In a basement jail cell, dozens of prisoners remained behind bars until Mayor Roswell Mason issued this order: “Release all prisoners from jail at once, keeping them in custody if possible.” (ICHi-64440)
Relief for the Sufferers of Chicago
This painting, created one year after the fire, represented a vision of the ruins in the minds of the sympathetic French and offered a gesture of comfort from abroad. Jules Emile Saintin. Oil on canvas, 1872. (ICHi-64555)
To the Homeless
Broadside, October 16, 1871. (ICHi-06194)
Homeless Citizens Taking Refuge
“The Great Fire in Chicago—Homeless Citizens Taking Refuge from the Flames among the Ruins" Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, October 28, 1871. (ICHi-02889)
Badge Used By Special Police
With the specter of that March’s working-class uprising in Paris fresh in their minds, city officials feared looting and riots in the chaotic aftermath of the fire. Federal troops and special police were called in to augment the regular police and ensure order amidst the smoldering ruins. (ICHi-63846)
State and Madison
Corner of State and Madison after the Fire. Photograph, 1871. (ICHi-0281)
Chicago Historical Society Building
Ruins of the Chicago Historical Society Building.” Photograph, 1871. The fire destroyed the Historical Society’s collection, including Abraham Lincoln’s handwritten draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. All that was salvaged from the ruins was a half-burnt hymnal. (ICHi-02770)
Saving the Goat
A young man named Justin Butterfield writes to his ‘chum.’ “We tried to get a wagon but could not so we put two trunks on a wheelbarrow and each of us shouldered a bundle and we marched for the old skating park.” The “old skating park” is probably Lincoln Park, where many people sought refuge from the flames. October 19, 1871. (ICHi-63792)
Chicago, October 10, 1871
Engraving from "Every Saturday," November 4, 1871, based on a drawing by Alfred Fredericks. (ICHi-63771)
Image for poster commemorating the 50th anniversary of the fire, 1921. Chicago rebuilt quickly after the fire, and by 1874 scarcely a trace of the fire’s devastation remained. ( ICHi-64432)