Great Fire

You were not to blame.

Very clearly, you didn’t do it. You were there, of course, but though everybody seems to be pointing fingers, you honestly had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t your fault. And in the new book “Chicago’s Great Fire” by Carl Smith, the cow was innocent, too.

On Sunday morning, October 8, 1871, Fire Chief Marshall Robert Williams went to bed, exhausted. For months, the weather in his Chicago hometown had been warm and dry with not much rain since mid-summer, and everything was “poised to burn.” Williams had just finished a long shift, fighting more than 20 fires caused by mischief, carelessness, or arson, and he had a bad feeling about the night to come.

A few hours later, in a part of town filled with working-class immigrants in small, crowded shacks, Catherine O’Leary finished her chores and joined her husband in bed. She owned a small dairy operation within city limits, and her contribution to her household was important. Catherine arose every morning at four to milk her cows, and she was tired.

The O’Learys fell asleep, but not for long. Around 9 o’clock, neighbor Daniel Sullivan spotted flames in the O’Leary’s barn, and he quickly woke the family. Sullivan then sprinted to a fire alarm many blocks away, tripped it, and returned to help.

For some reason, however, the alarm was ignored. Within minutes, sparks leapt from the O’Leary’s barn to nearby homes and spread to outbuildings. Dry wood disintegrated, burning sawdust swirled and ignited, and fire raged out of control, an inferno that sent Chicagoans scrambling for green space and waterfront. Carrying their most precious belongings on their backs, the wealthy tried to save their artwork, the poor tried to save their cookpots, officials tried to save important documents, and Chicago burned...

It’s almost impossible to read the first half of “Chicago’s Great Fire” without feeling your heart pound. Indeed, you can practically hear ominous music beneath author Carl Smith’s narrative, and though you know there’s a near-literal Phoenix-from-the-ashes rising sooner or later, you also know there’s lots of story left.

Part of the appeal of its telling is in the authenticity here, through a wide variety of sources, including the words of Chicagoans of all ages. This comes mostly in quaintly florid Victorian-era prose that’s gut-wrenchingly poignant, and wonderful as a storytelling tool. Also: more heart-pounding. More nail-biting.

Once you get past the immediacy of the fire, a clean-up begins in both reality and story. For modern residents and fans alike, but also for lovers of old buildings, the latter half of this book is fascinating in its account of the efforts to re-make Chicago, and to make sure that disasters like this never happen again.

Though you know what happened that night by Lake Michigan – and in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, at the very same time – there are many surprises left inside “Chicago’s Great Fire,” including a cow that didn’t do a thing. And if you miss that story, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Also be sure to check out “Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy” by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano, a book about a more modern-day inferno in Paradise, California; and “A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes” by Eric Jay Dolin, a book about hurricanes on our shores.

Terri Schlichenmeyer can be reached at

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