On this day in 1871, flames spark in the Chicago barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, igniting a two-day blaze that kills between 200 and 300 people, destroys 17,450 buildings, leaves 100,000 homeless and causes an estimated $200 million in damages ($3 billion in 2007 dollars).
Legend has it that a cow kicked over a lantern in the O’Leary barn and started the fire, but other theories hold that humans or even a comet may have been responsible for the event that left four square miles of the Windy City, including its business district, in ruins.
Reconstruction efforts began quickly and spurred great economic development and population growth, as architects laid the foundation for a modern city featuring the world’s first skyscrapers. At the time of the fire, Chicago’s population was approximately 324,000; within nine years, there were 500,000 Chicagoans.
By 1893, the city was a major economic and transportation hub with an estimated population of 1.5 million. That same year, Chicago was chosen to host the World’s Columbian Exposition, an enormous attraction visited by 27.5 million people, or approximately half the U.S. population at the time.
As Chicago’s checkered fortunes would have it, her rebirth provided the hunting ground for H.H. Holmes, the U of M medical doctor and serial killer who murdered between 27 and 200 victims during the city’s frenzied comeback.
And still, she remains one of the most remarkable, resilient cities in the world, famed for bold architecture, museums, sports traditions and 2.7 million amiably gritty folks who proudly call it home.