Monday, October 8, 2018

The Fires of October 1871

Monday, October 8, 2018
Chicago Fire 1871
Loretta reports:

Nearly every major city in the world has endured a catastrophic fire. Some happen during wartime, sometimes it's arson, but in the majority of cases, an act of nature or an accident sets things off.

Two of the most well-known U.S. fires are those in Chicago (1871) and San Francisco (1906), the latter resulting from earthquake damage. The former supposedly started when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over an oil lamp in the barn, but that’s only one of several versions of what happened.

An article in the Library of Congress’s Today in History (please scroll down) taught me something I didn’t know: On the same day as the Chicago blaze, large parts of Michigan and Wisconsin, including several cities, burnt to the ground. The fires left at least 1,200 people—possibly twice that number—dead. The summer and early autumn had been unusually dry and October was unusually warm. Fierce winds spread the fires far and quickly. In other words, the Midwest was a tinderbox in October 1871.
Chicago after the Fire

Chicago, like London at the time of the Great Fire a couple of centuries earlier, was built mostly of wood. So were other cities. Regulating Mother Nature is a challenge, but given London's experience, you’d suppose cities would take precautions, establishing building codes to reduce risk, as London did back in the 1600s. But usually what happens is that only a catastrophe brings about change, and cities had to work it out for themselves. From what I can ascertain, they usually did so, establishing building codes and other regulations as well as strengthening their firefighting organizations.

For some perspective on how much of the world has burned down over the centuries, you might want to take a look at Wikipedia’s List of Town and City Fires. It provides some fascinating information and food for thought.

Images: The Great Fire at Chicago Oct. 9th 1871. View from the West Side; Chicago after the Fire, courtesyLibrary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.


Tegan said...

Two interesting things about fires gleaned from a book called Historic Fires. One: Chicagos great fire surpassed its previous record easily. However its previous record was the day before. So they had a delayed response as the firefighters were exhausted which made the situation worse.

Two, when colonizing North America, there were different approaches. France made it illegal to build in wood. The Dutch had fire brigades. Englands colonies just burned down. So Montreal is stone, New York had regular fire patrols until the English took over, and Boston burned down more frequenly than any other city at the time.

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