Drought plagued the Midwestern United States in the summer of 1871. Forest fires were already frequent in the wood of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, but the lack of rainfall made the threat of fire especially ripe that year. In the city of Chicago, which had already become the fourth largest in the United States, the mostly wooden buildings had become dry enough to be considered tinder.
The world had its eyes on other things that year. The German Empire had been declared at Versailles after Bismarck’s coalition of German states successful invaded France and ended the reign of Napoleon III. The major newspapers thought little of fire safety in the outpost of Chicago. But the Chicago fire department was worried. On the night of Oct. 8, 1871 they were also very tired.
The entire department had been called out to a major fire on the city’s west side the previous evening. It was the worst fire that the city had known up to that point as four blocks were ruined by flames. The entire Chicago fire department numbers about 185 men. As many as 30 had been injured fighting that fire, which added to the threat the season’s drought had causes.
The Chicago Fire Department greatly lacked the equipment to fight multiple fires. It owned only four hook-and-ladder trucks, which was not enough for a city that was one of the fastest growing in the world. Perhaps the department though that the worst was over after the four-block blaze on Oct. 7. But that fire was only a harbinger to the big show.
Chicago was part of the American tradition of building in haste. In 1830, it was a small outpost on the Western frontier. By 1871 it boasted a population over 300,000. By the end of the Great Chicago Fire 300 of them would be dead and almost 100,000 were homeless. The combination of poor planing an overstretched fire department caused a major disaster. But Chicago got off light. Peshtigo, Wisconsin had a fire the same night that claimed as many as 1,400 lives.