People fleeing a raging blaze as smoke and fire covers their town
Illustration by Gary Hanna

"This Is the End of Chicago!"

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

By Lauren Tarshis
From the October/November 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will identify cause-and-effect relationships as they read a narrative nonfiction article about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. 

Lexile: 600L-700L, 700L-800L
Guided Reading Level: U
DRA Level: 50
Other Key Skills: cause and effect, author’s craft, compare and contrast, text features, summarizing, synthesizing, applying learning, formulating ideas, informational writing
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UP CLOSE: Cause and Effect

As you read, look for why a huge fire started in Chicago in 1871 and what happened to the city and its people as a result.

Thirteen-year-old Bessie Bradwell staggered through Chicago’s burning streets. Flames shot hundreds of feet into the air. Glowing embers and hunks of burning wood rained down.

It was October 8, 1871, and the city of Chicago, Illinois, was on fire. Already, hundreds of buildings had burned to the ground. Thousands of people filled the streets, their screams rising over the fire’s monstrous crackling roar.

Worst of all, Bessie had lost track of her parents and brother. Soon, much of Chicago would be turned to ash. And Bessie was on her own.

Thirteen-year-old Bessie Bradwell staggered through Chicago’s burning streets. Flames shot hundreds of feet into the air. Glowing embers and pieces of burning wood rained down.

It was October 8, 1871. The city of Chicago, Illinois, was on fire. Hundreds of buildings had already burned to the ground. Thousands of people filled the streets. Their screams rose over the fire’s huge crackling roar.

Worst of all, Bessie had lost track of her parents and brother. Soon, much of Chicago would turn to ash. And Bessie was on her own.

Pump Park Vintage Photography/Alamy Stock Photo

America in Motion

In the late 1860s, railroads connected the United States from east to west for the first time. Ads like the ones at left and below encouraged travel by train.

Hope and Excitement

Hope and Excitement

Just hours earlier, Bessie had gone to sleep in her family’s elegant home near Lake Michigan. About a mile away, in a crowded neighborhood across the Chicago River, Catherine O’Leary, her husband, Patrick, and their five children were also sound asleep.

On the surface, the Bradwell and O’Leary families seemed to live in two separate worlds. Bessie’s father, James, was a judge who had been friends with President Abraham Lincoln. Her mother, Myra, had founded a successful newspaper.

Unlike Bessie’s parents, the O’Learys did not have famous friends. Neither Catherine nor Patrick could read or write. Like tens of thousands of others in Chicago, they were immigrants from Ireland. They lived in a plain, unpainted house that had just two rooms for the family of seven.

But both the Bradwells and the O’Learys were, in their own ways, successful. Like Bessie’s mother, Catherine O’Leary ran a growing business—a small dairy. Each morning, she milked the four cows she kept in the family’s barn behind the house. She’d then deliver fresh milk to customers. Like the Bradwells, the O’Learys were respected by those who knew them. Both families had high hopes for the future.

As did the city of Chicago itself.

In less than 40 years, Chicago had grown from a mosquito-ridden trading post into a city of 330,000 people.

Powering the city’s growth was a new way of traveling—trains. In the years since Bessie was born, railroads had completely changed life in America. Suddenly, everyone—and everything—seemed to be moving.

Cross-country trips that had taken months by horse and buggy now took just days.

By the late 1860s, thousands of miles of railroad tracks crisscrossed the United States. And in the middle of the action was Chicago. Few cities had grown as fast.

Just hours earlier, Bessie had gone to sleep in her family’s elegant home. It was near Lake Michigan. About a mile away, a woman named Catherine O’Leary, her husband, Patrick, and their five children were also sound asleep.

It seemed like the Bradwell and O’Leary families lived in two separate worlds. Bessie’s dad, James, was a judge. He had been friends with President Abraham Lincoln. Bessie’s mom, Myra, had started a successful newspaper.

Unlike Bessie’s parents, the O’Learys did not have famous friends. Neither Catherine nor Patrick could read or write. They were immigrants from Ireland—like tens of thousands of others in Chicago. They lived in a plain, unpainted house. It had just two rooms for the family of seven.

But both the Bradwells and the O’Learys were successful. Like Bessie’s mom, Catherine O’Leary ran a growing business—a small dairy. Each morning, she milked her four cows in the family’s barn behind the house. She’d then deliver fresh milk to customers. Like the Bradwells, the O’Learys were respected by those who knew them. Both families had high hopes for the future.

As did the city of Chicago itself.

In less than 40 years, Chicago had grown from a trading post into a city of more than 300,000 people. A new way of traveling—trains—powered the city’s growth. Railroads had completely changed life in America. Suddenly, everyone—and everything—seemed to be moving. Cross-country trips once took months by horse and buggy. Now they took just days.

By the late 1860s, thousands of miles of railroad tracks crisscrossed the United States. And in the middle of the action was Chicago. Few cities had grown as fast.

The Jay T. Last Collection of Graphic Arts and Social History, Huntington Digital Library (Train Ad); De Luan/Alamy Stock Photo (Poster)

Ads showed train travel as fancy, comfortable, and fun.

Oozing Green Slime

Oozing Green Slime

But not everyone benefited as Chicago grew. For centuries, the Potawatomi [pah-tuh-WAH-tuh-mee] people and members of other tribes had hunted and fished on the area’s quiet marshes and riverbanks. By the 1830s, like tens of thousands of other Native Americans, the Potawatomi had been forced off their lands by the United States government.

And not all immigrants to Chicago were as successful as the O’Learys. Many wound up working low-paying and often dangerous jobs in the city’s factories and mills.

Nature suffered too as Chicago boomed. The Chicago River was filled with human waste and garbage. Green slime oozed up through the wooden sidewalks on rainy days. And a horrific smell hung over the city. So disgusting was the stench that some people vomited as they stepped off their trains.

But nothing could slow the city’s stunning growth. Nothing, that is, but fire.

Today we are kept safe from most deadly fires. Smoke alarms wake us up moments after a fire starts. Fire trucks can speed through the streets to stop a fire from spreading through a neighborhood.

But as Bessie and the O’Leary kids were growing up, the technology to quickly put out fires did not exist. And fire risks were everywhere. There were the flickering candles that lit up their rooms. There were the scorching fires used to cook their food. There were the hot coals that kept them warm. One fallen candle or stray ember could torch an entire town.

Chicago was, in fact, better prepared for fires than some cities. But the city’s fire department of 190 men was far too small for a city of Chicago’s size. And the city was built almost entirely out of wood—houses, streets, sidewalks, bridges. Wood was cheap. It took far less time and money to build a house with wood than with brick or stone.

Not surprisingly, there were more and more fires as Chicago grew. In 1870, there were 669 fires—a record. The summer of 1871 was far hotter and drier than normal. Only about an inch of rain fell between July and September. The city sizzled. Bessie sweated under her long skirts. Mrs. O’Leary’s cows roasted in the barn.

By October, fires were breaking out several times a day. On Saturday, October 7, a monster fire destroyed four city blocks. But nobody in Chicago could imagine that a far bigger disaster was just hours away.

But not everyone benefited as Chicago grew. For centuries, the Potawatomi [pah-tuh-WAH-tuh-mee] people and members of other tribes had hunted and fished in the area. By the 1830s, the Potawatomi had been forced off their lands by the United States government. That’s also what happened to tens of thousands of other Native Americans.

And not all immigrants to Chicago were as successful as the O’Learys. Many worked low-paying and dangerous jobs in the city’s factories and mills.

Nature suffered too as Chicago boomed. The Chicago River was filled with human waste and garbage. Green slime oozed up through the wooden sidewalks on rainy days. And a horrific smell hung over the city. The odor was so disgusting that some people threw up as they stepped off their trains.

But nothing could slow the city’s growth. Nothing, that is, but fire.

Today, we are kept safe from most deadly fires. Smoke alarms wake us up right after a fire starts. Fire trucks can speed through the streets to stop a fire from spreading. But not when Bessie and the O’Leary kids were growing up. The technology to quickly put out fires did not exist. And fire risks were everywhere. Candles lit up their rooms. Fires were used to cook their food. Hot coals kept them warm. One fallen candle or stray ember could burn an entire town.

Chicago was better prepared for fires than some cities. But the city’s fire department had only 190 men. It was far too small for a city of Chicago’s size. And the city was built almost entirely out of wood—houses, streets, sidewalks, bridges. Wood was cheap. It took far less time and money to build a house with wood than with brick or stone.

Not surprisingly, there were more and more fires as Chicago grew. In 1870, there were 669 fires. It was a record. The summer of 1871 was far hotter and drier than normal. Only about an inch of rain fell between July and September. The city sizzled. Bessie sweated under her long skirts. Mrs. O’Leary’s cows roasted in the barn.

By October, fires were breaking out several times a day. On Saturday, October 7, a monster fire destroyed four city blocks. But nobody in Chicago could imagine that a far bigger disaster was just hours away.

INTERFOTO/Alamy Stock Photo

CHICAGO IN CRISIS

This drawing shows people escaping out a window during the Chicago Fire. Small children are wrapped in bedsheets.

“The Barn Is Afire!”

“The Barn Is Afire!”

Catherine O’Leary had just fallen asleep on Sunday night, October 8. Suddenly, she was jolted awake by her husband’s screams.

“Kate! The barn is afire!”

Catherine shot out of bed. She and Patrick hustled their five children to safety across the street. It was too late to save the barn. Patrick and neighbors filled washtubs with water from hydrants and struggled to protect the house.

By the time the fire department arrived, much of the neighborhood was burning. A hot, dry wind pulled sparks and embers into the air. Like burning seeds, they started new fires wherever they landed. Thousands of people were now on the streets. Horses ran wild, dogs howled, rats zigzagged between running feet.

Firefighters held out hope that the fires wouldn’t cross the Chicago River. But by midnight that hope was gone.

Bessie and her family were awakened by the sounds of shouts and the smell of smoke. Right away, they sensed their house was in danger. Quickly, Bessie’s parents made a plan. Bessie would go with her father to his office, to rescue his valuable law books. Then they would meet her mother and brother at a lakeside park.

Catherine O’Leary had just fallen asleep on Sunday night, October 8. Suddenly, she was woken up by her husband’s screams.

“Kate! The barn is afire!”

Catherine shot out of bed. She and Patrick hurried their five children to safety across the street. It was too late to save the barn. But Patrick and neighbors struggled to protect the house. They used water from hydrants.

Soon, much of the neighborhood was burning. A hot, dry wind pulled sparks and embers into the air. Like burning seeds, they started new fires wherever they landed. Thousands of people were now on the streets. Horses ran wild. Dogs barked. Rats zigzagged between running feet.

Firefighters hoped that the fires wouldn’t cross the Chicago River. But by midnight that hope was gone.

Bessie and her family were awakened by the sounds of shouts and the smell of smoke. Right away, they felt their house was in danger. Quickly, Bessie’s parents made a plan. Bessie would go with her dad to his office. They had to rescue his valuable law books. Then they would meet her mom and brother at a lakeside park.

The Chicago History Museum/Tribune Publishing

This photo was taken after the fire and shows the city in ruins.

Blackened Bricks

Blackened Bricks

Bessie and her father hurried the few blocks to the office. Meanwhile, fires in different neighborhoods had joined together. The fire was now hundreds of yards wide and growing fast. Its flaming jaws devoured the endless feast of wood. Nothing could stop it.

Bessie and her father made it to the office, but somehow, they were separated. Bessie found herself in the streets, caught in the middle of a panicked crowd. Falling embers set her clothes on fire, and strangers smothered the flames with their bare hands.

At last, Bessie recognized two friends of her parents. They scooped her up and led her to a bridge. What was on the other side? There was no time to think—and no choice but to cross.

Bessie peered over her shoulder as they hurried across the burning bridge. A man next to her screamed into Bessie’s ear:

“This is the end of Chicago!”

And so it seemed. The fire burned through the night and all the next day. By the time it was over, late Monday night, one-third of the city was a ruin of ash, twisted metal, piles of blackened bricks, and dead trees. Three hundred people were dead. Family members searched for missing relatives—like Bessie.

It wasn’t until Tuesday night that Bessie’s parents learned she was safe with their friends. The O’Learys too seemed to have made it through better than many. With help from their neighbors, they had saved their house.

But the O’Learys would soon face another kind of disaster.

Bessie and her dad hurried to the office. Meanwhile, fires in different neighborhoods had joined together. The fire was now hundreds of yards wide. It was growing fast. Its flaming jaws devoured the endless feast of wood. Nothing could stop it.

Bessie and her dad made it to the office. Somehow, they were separated. Bessie found herself in the streets. She was caught in the middle of a panicked crowd. Falling embers set her clothes on fire. Strangers smothered the flames with their bare hands.

At last, Bessie recognized two friends of her parents. They led her to a bridge. What was on the other side? There was no time to think. She had no choice but to cross. Bessie looked over her shoulder as they ran across the burning bridge. A man screamed into Bessie’s ear:

“This is the end of Chicago!”

And that seemed true. The fire burned through the night and all the next day. By the time it was over, it was late Monday night. One-third of the city was a ruin of ash, twisted metal, piles of blackened bricks, and dead trees. Three hundred people were dead. Family members looked for missing relatives—like Bessie.

Bessie’s parents didn’t learn she was safe until Tuesday. The O’Learys too had made it through better than many. With help from their neighbors, they had saved their house. But the O’Learys would soon face another kind of disaster.

Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago/Getty Images (Crowd)

CHICAGO REBUILT

In 1893, Chicago hosted the world’s fair. This was an exciting event with amazing food, carnival-style rides (including a giant Ferris wheel), and the latest in science and technology. Nations around the world participated. 

Blamed for the Fire

Blamed for the Fire

In the days after the fire, newspapers printed stories about the fire’s cause. Where it started was never in doubt—in the O’Learys’ barn. But reporters began to blame Catherine, printing lies. They claimed that while she was milking her cow, the animal had kicked over a lantern, and that the lantern set fire to hay in the barn. The Chicago Fire, people said, was Catherine O’Leary’s fault.

This was, of course, false. Nobody knows exactly what caused the fire. Given how dried out the city was, the slightest spark could have set the barn on fire. But one fact is clear: Catherine and her family had been asleep when the fire started.

But the vicious lie spread, fueled by hateful prejudice against immigrants at the time. Catherine never recovered from the shame of being unfairly blamed.

As for Chicago, the first years following the fire were filled with grim suffering.

But within the decade, Chicago had been almost completely rebuilt—with laws to make the city safer from fire. Today, Chicago is America’s third-largest city.

Bessie went to law school, got married, and ran her mother’s newspaper. She lived in Chicago her whole life, until she died at the age of 68.

She often shared the story of her escape from the flames. She especially remembered the man who shouted into her ear on that burning bridge, the one who said the fire was the end of Chicago. She’d looked at him and said, “No, no. Chicago will rise again.”

And Bessie was right.

In the days after the fire, newspapers printed stories about the fire’s cause. There was no doubt the fire had started in the O’Learys’ barn. But reporters began to print lies. They blamed Catherine for the fire. They claimed that while she was milking her cow, the animal had kicked over a lantern. They said the lantern set fire to hay in the barn. People said the Chicago Fire was Catherine O’Leary’s fault.

This was, of course, false. Nobody knows exactly what caused the fire. The city was very dried out. The slightest spark could have set the barn on fire. But one fact is clear: Catherine and her family had been asleep when the fire started.

But the horrible lie spread. It was fueled by hateful prejudice against immigrants at the time. Catherine never recovered from the shame of being unfairly blamed.

As for Chicago, the first years after the fire were filled with grim suffering. But within 10 years, Chicago had been almost completely rebuilt. There were now laws to make the city safer from fire. Today, Chicago is America’s third-largest city.

Bessie went to law school, got married, and ran her mom’s newspaper. She lived in Chicago her whole life. She died at the age of 68.

She often shared the story of her escape from the flames. She especially remembered the man from the burning bridge. He had said that the fire was the end of Chicago. She’d looked at him and said, “No, no. Chicago will rise again.”

And Bessie was right.

Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

CHICAGO REBUILT

The 1893 World's Fair in Chicago attracted 27 million visitors. It also showed how far the city had come since the Great Chicago Fire just 22 years before.

Write to Win

Write a newspaper article from shortly after the Chicago Fire, reporting on what happened and why it was so serious. Include imaginary quotes from Bessie and Catherine. Send it to “Fire Contest” by Dec. 1, 2021. Five winners will each receive a $20 gift card to the online Scholastic Store. Visit the Storyworks Contests page for more information.

Write to Win

Write a newspaper article from shortly after the Chicago Fire, reporting on what happened and why it was so serious. Include imaginary quotes from Bessie and Catherine. Send it to “Fire Contest” by Dec. 1, 2021. Five winners will each receive a $20 gift card to the online Scholastic Store. Visit the Storyworks Contests page for more information.

Text copyright Lauren Tarshis

This article was originally published in the October/November 2021 issue.

Text copyright Lauren Tarshis

This article was originally published in the October/November 2021 issue.

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