On the morning of October 8, 1871, The Chicago Tribune included the following quote:
“The absence of rain for three weeks [has] left everything in so flammable a condition that a spark might set a fire which would sweep from end to end of the city.”
Sadly, this warning proved ominous later that evening when the city actually did catch fire. The Great Chicago Fire began on the evening of October 8 and continued until October 10. The fire burned for hours over a span of 4 miles long and 1 mile wide.
Ultimately, it resulted in the destruction of 17,450 buildings, 300 fatalities, and $200 million in damages. It also left 100,000 people (31% of Chicago’s population at the time) homeless.
The wall of flames, which reached 100 feet high, caused those living in Chicago to run from the city. According to Thought Co.:
“Fire companies tried their best to contain the fire, but when the city’s waterworks were destroyed the battle was over. The only response to the fire was to try to flee, and tens of thousands of Chicago's citizens did. It has been estimated that a quarter of the city’s approximately 330,000 residents took to the streets, carrying what they could in a mad panic.”
A Story Every Prep-Minded American Needs to Know
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was so devastating that it continues to be commemorated each year during Fire Prevention Week. Every year around October 8, the International Fire Marshals Association uses the events of 1871 to educate the public about fire prevention and preparedness.
However, we don’t think preparedness lessons should only be taught one time a year.
Instead, preparedness should be a daily part of our lives. That’s why we are spending time today to learn from history and better prepare ourselves for this type of disaster scenario.
What Caused the Great Chicago Fire?
Historians have tried to uncover the cause of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but the actual cause is still unknown. For quite some time, many people falsely believed the fire was started by a cow kicking over a lantern.
What we do know is that the city was experiencing a serious drought, and construction was poor. Many structures were made of wood, and fire codes were ignored. The combination of poor construction and drought made the city combustible.
With that being said, fires, like other disasters, can happen anytime at any place. While the mass destruction of the Great Chicago Fire may have been preventable, we can’t always predict when or where a fire will strike. That’s why it is critical to take steps today to prepare.
The Aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire
The immediate aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire was chaos. Over 300,000 people headed to the streets in attempts to flee the burning housing and business districts.
In their desperation, people grabbed anything they could salvage, much of which was pointless. WTTW republished a witness account claiming, “One woman carrying an empty bird cage; another, an old workbox; another, some dirty, empty baskets. Old, useless bedding, anything that could be hurriedly snatched up, seemed to have been carried away without judgment or forethought.”
As people ran for their lives into a city engulfed in flames, many families became separated trying to escape.
The Government’s Role in Recovery
Since the fire caused such widespread devastation, the government quickly called for help. Homes and possessions were destroyed, and people only had the clothes on their backs and whatever they had managed to carry out of their homes.
The government authorities quickly made executive directives against surge pricing on things such as bread and wagon drivers, and they formed a Relief Committee to distribute food and supplies.
In addition to needing to find food, water, shelter, and clothing for survivors, the city officials also needed help establishing law and order. "The city is infested with a horde of thieves, burglars, and cut-throats, bent on plunder, and who will not hesitate to burn, pillage, and even murder, as opportunity may seem to offer to them to do so with safety," warned the Chicago Evening Journal a day after the fire.
As a result, the city was placed under de facto martial law led by a mix of regular troops, militia units, police, and a volunteer regiment.
The Hero of the Great Chicago Fire
As firefighters struggled to put out the flames, another man ran in the opposite direction. Rather than follow the masses, Joseph Hudlin, head janitor for the Board of Trade building, ran back toward the burning city. He managed to run into the burning Board of Trade building and save important documents. His heroics didn’t stop there. He and his wife also sheltered five families whose homes had been destroyed.
How Aid Was and Was Not Given
While the government focused on reestablishing law and order, The Chicago Relief and Aid Society was in charge of the relief effort. Their first goal was to feed and shelter the homeless – especially with the winter months coming.
However, due to the large amount of financial contributions pouring in, there was concern that people would take advantage of charity. Therefore, the organization carefully reviewed all applications to avoid giving supplies to those who were deemed “able to work.”
In circular reports 2 weeks after the fire, the superintendent of supplies wrote, “Give no aid to any families who are capable of earning their own support, if fully employed (except it be to supply some needed articles of clothing, bedding, or furniture which their earnings will not enable them to procure, and at the same time meet their ordinary expenses of food and fuel” (Foundation of Economic Education). Ultimately, the Chicago Relief and Aid Society made it their goal to help people find work rather than making fire victims accustomed to charity.
The Reality of Fire Loss Today
It can be easy to dismiss the Great Chicago Fire as a tragedy that occurred during a time with less fireproofing building materials and poor construction regulations. But, the truth is, fire is still a major issue in the United States today.
According to a report by FAS and the National Interagency Fire Center, “In 2020, over 58,250 wildfires burned 10.3 million acres, the most acreage impacted in a year; nearly 40% of these acres were in California.”
Home fires are also a regular occurrence. The National Fire Protection Association reports, “Local fire departments responded to 1,291,500 fires in 2019. These fires caused roughly 3,700 civilian deaths, 16,600 civilian injuries and $14.8 billion in property damage. Every 24 seconds, a fire department in the United States responds to a fire somewhere in the nation. A fire occurs in a structure at the rate of one every 65 seconds, and a home fire occurs every 93 seconds.”
Survival Lessons from the Great Chicago Fire
The data above shows we should take heed of lessons learned from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
- Always Have a Go-Bag Ready. One of the first emergency preparedness steps to take is to prepare a go-bag. A go-bag contains the essentials you need in the event of an emergency (i.e., bottled water, food, a change of clothes, first aid kit, and flashlight) in a bag that you can quickly grab and run with. When the Chicago Fire occurred, people grabbed useless items rather than these essentials.
- Know a Safe Place to Retreat. Ideally, you will have a bug-out location in mind. If you cannot afford to purchase land in a secure location, you should at least have a place in mind where you can go if something happens. The people in Chicago in 1871 ran without direction and ended up either on the streets or with strangers.
- Prepare to Protect Yourself and Your Family. In the aftermath of the Chicago Fire, looters and thieves took advantage of the city’s residents. It’s wise to have weapons of some sort to protect your family and home.
- Store Important Documents Safely. The reason Joseph Hudlin is deemed a hero is because he risked his life to save important documents by running into a burning building. You don’t have to take this extreme measure if you purchase a firebox or safe to store your important documents.
- Have a Family Emergency Plan. In the chaos, many people lost track of their family members. Avoid this same scenario by having a family emergency plan, which designates a family meeting place and a way to communicate.
- Check Alarm Systems. Many sources claim the alarms didn’t work at the time of the Great Chicago Fire, or if they worked, they were not heard over the commotion. Make a point to regularly check your smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.
- Practice Self-Sufficiency. In the aftermath of the fire, the charity organizations made it clear they would not give freebies to just anyone. Instead, people had to prove their need. We already know it is unwise to depend on the government, especially after a disaster. Protect yourself by practicing self-sufficiency. Build up a savings account, and learn basic survival skills.
Learn from the past, friends.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply