The history books are filled with stories of catastrophic fires in cities and among the most famous is the Chicago Fire of 1874. This was the second large fire in the Windy City the first in 1871 was much more destructive and is usually referred to as the Great Chicago Fire. In spite of the widespread destruction and displacement of residents important fire prevention lessons were learned from these twin disasters. The Chicago Fire of 1874 was the impetus for implementation of fire and life safety measures under discussion since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
The Chicago Fire of 1874 began at about 4:30 in the afternoon on July 14, a wretchedly hot summer day. The city was parched by a stifling drought. Only a trace of rain had fallen since the first of June. While the 1871 fire destroyed much of Chicago’s core business district the 1874 fire consumed an area just south of downtown. The rush to rebuild after the 1871 fire led to the unfortunate construction of many wooden structures in an area of the city known as “the Cheyenne District” which had become home to primarily Polish and Russian immigrants.
The city’s crude infrastructure caused major problems. The water distribution system in the Cheyenne District was barely sufficient to feed the needs of residents and businesses and the rusted, badly clogged pipes prevented the supply of the water so desperately needed by the city’s poorly equipped fire fighters. A stiff hot, dry wind made matters worse to an extent but fortunately it was blowing from the Southwest a large section of the city was actually spared.
The fire is believed to have originated in an industrial rag shop. The large quantity of flammable liquids stored there fueled a blaze that raged for almost eight hours. 47 acres were consumed. Over 800 structures were destroyed including 8 churches, 4 hotels, a post office, 1 school and a theater. Mercifully, only 20 people lost their lives.
Strict regulations were enacted as a result of the Chicago Fire of 1874. The size of water mains was increased, the Fire Department was reorganized and enlarged, new construction of wooden buildings and expansion of existing wood structures within the city limits was prohibited. The City was quick to enact and enforce these and other regulations to avoid cessation of business and inconvenience to citizens and most were in place by the fall of 1874.
Chicago learned its fire prevention lessons the hard way but the twin fire disasters of the 1870’s became a model for other cities large and small. Today the Windy City is protected by a well-equipped and well trained Fire Department of over 4500 fire and life safety professionals, the third largest Fire Department in the United States.