The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 devastated downtown Chicago. This drawing illustrates hundreds of people fleeing across the Randolph Street Bridge, a structure that still carries traffic from Michigan Avenue, in Chicago's downtown "Loop" business district, across the Chicago River.

Illustration by John R Chapin, "Chicago in Flames—The Rush for Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge,'' originally published in Harper's Weekly
  • On October 8, 1871, a fire broke out in a barn on the southwest side of Chicago, Illinois. For more than 24 hours, the fire burned through the heart of Chicago, killing 300 people and leaving one-third of the city's population homeless.
    Scientists and historians are not sure what caused the Great Chicago Fire. An early legend blamed the fire on Catherine O’Leary, whose barn was the first building to burn. A journalist made up the story that O’Leary’s cow knocked over a lantern while being milked. Many people were bigoted against Irish immigrants like O’Leary and believed the story.
    A more likely possibility is that O’Leary’s son and his friends were playing cards in the barn. Mrs. O’Leary shooed them out, and one of the young gamblers accidentally knocked over a lantern. In fact, a man confessed to being the one to knock over the lamp, and later gave money to the city to apologize.
    Another possibility is that Chicago and the surrounding area experienced a meteor shower, and burning space rocks set wooden houses and forests on fire. Four fires (including the even more destructive Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin) took place in the same area, on the same night. Witnesses reported seeing “balls of fire” fall from the sky.
    Today, the second week in October is marked as Fire Prevention Week in the United States and Canada in remembrance of the Great Chicago Fire.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    apologize Verb

    to express regret or remorse for having wronged another person.

    barn Noun

    shelter where animals and farm equipment are kept.

    bigoted Adjective

    prejudiced or intolerant of a person or group not like oneself.

    blame Verb

    to hold responsible for something.

    confess Verb

    to admit.

    destructive Adjective


    gamble Verb

    to play a game of chance.

    historian Noun

    person who studies events and ideas of the past.

    immigrant Noun

    person who moves to a new country or region.

    journalist Noun

    person who reports and distributes news.

    lantern Noun

    portable case for storing a source of light, such as a candle.

    legend Noun

    traditional or mythical story.

    likely Adjective

    probable or believable.

    meteor shower Noun

    large amount of rocky debris falling into Earth's atmosphere, usually when Earth passes through the orbit of a comet.

    population Noun

    total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

    possibility Noun

    chance or likelihood.

    remembrance Noun


    scientist Noun

    person who studies a specific type of knowledge using the scientific method.