Besides the fact that the Great Chicago Fire started around 9 o'clock on Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, somewhere in or very near the O'Leary barn, the exact particulars of its origins are unknown. But, given the dry summer and the careless way the city had been built and managed, a kick from a cow would have been sufficient but by no means necessary to burn Chicago down. As A.T. Andreas, the city's leading nineteenth-century historian, put it, "Nature had withheld her accustomed measure of prevention, and man had added to the peril by recklessness."
Chicago averaged about two fires a day the previous year, including twenty in the preceding week. The largest of these occurred just on Saturday night. Firemen still might have been able to contain the Sunday blaze but for a series of technological and human failures in the alarm system. The fire, driven by a strong wind out of the southwest, headed straight for the center of the city. It divided unpredictably into separate parts by hurling out flaming brands on the superheated draft it generated, leaping the South Branch of the Chicago River around midnight. Dividing yet again, it made short work of Conley's Patch. By 1:30 it reached the Courthouse tower, from which the watchman barely escaped through the burning stairway by sliding down the banisters. When city officials realized that the building was itself doomed, they released the prisoners from the basement just before the great bell plummeted through the collapsing tower.
As thousands fled to the North Division, the fire pursued them. By 3 a.m., it had consumed the Rumsey homes on Huron Street, and a half-hour later the roof collapsed on the pumping station, effectively rendering any firefighting efforts useless. Back in the South Division, the luxurious new Palmer House gave way, along with the offices of the Chicago Tribune, whose editors throughout the summer and fall had exhorted the Common Council to raise the level of fire protection if they wished to avoid just this sort of disaster. One of the last South Division structures to fall was Terrace Row. By noon on Monday the North Division fires had reached North Avenue. They advanced the better part of a mile to Fullerton Avenue, then the northern limit of the city. Tuesday morning a saving rain began to fall, and the flames finally died out, leaving Chicago a smoking, steaming ruin.
As the fire spread out of control, the mood of the population shifted from interest and concern to alarm and panic. Many heard the Courthouse bell and saw the red and amber flames in the distance but thought little of what was by this time a commonplace occurrence. Individuals who worked in downtown buildings that were supposed to be "fireproof," like the one that housed the Tribune, or simply people understandably fascinated with the spectacle, rushed to positions from which they could watch its progress. Before long, however, they realized that there was no place of guaranteed safety. Fascinated as well as fearful, people alternately--even simultaneously--tried to get the best view and flee for their lives with what little--which was often nothing--they could salvage, creating havoc in the streets and wild crowding on the bridges crossing the river. Husbands and wives, parents and children, were separated. It seemed as if the ground was itself on fire--which in fact it was, since the streets, sidewalks, and bridges were made of wood. Even the river seemed vulnerable, as several vessels and grease along the water's surface ignited.
Later there were reports of Chicagoans trapped or crushed in their homes, on one of the bridges, or in the Washington and LaSalle Street tunnels, the latter of which had just opened in early July. Along with the stories of narrow escapes, heroic rescues, and selfless mutual assistance, there were also tales--no doubt exaggerated but with some basis in fact--of looting and drunkenness, as well as of outrageous demands and outright thievery by those with wagons who had been hired to cart goods to safety. "'Pay as you go' had become the watchword of the hour," observed one of the refugees drily. "Never was there a community so hastily and completely emancipated from the evils of the credit system."
The burned-out gathered in dazed and dispirited groups on open stretches of prairie west and northwest of the central city, in the South Division along Lake Michigan, in the North Division at the south end of Lincoln Park, and along "the Sands," a patch of lakeshore just north of the river. Here Chicagoans who heretofore had little contact with each other were unceremoniously forced together. As a fire history put it, one could find "Mr. McCormick, the millionaire of the reaper trade, and other north-side nabobs, herding promiscuously with the humblest laborer, the lowest vagabond, and the meanest harlot. Once they settled themselves, there was little they could do but bear witness to this calamity beyond comprehension.