Sunday, March 1, 2009

O'Leary Cottage, where the Great Fire Began

On the evening of October 8, 1871, at 9:15 p.m., a fire began in a barn on this site, at 137 De Koven Street (now 558 W. De Koven). By the next morning, the entire city was aflame in one of the most destructive conflagrations in human history, the Great Chicago Fire. The burned district spread over 2,200 acres, leaving nearly 300 dead and 100,000 homeless (roughly 1/3 of the city's population.

Patrick O'Leary, an Irish laborer, had purchased the lot on De Koven St. in 1864 for $500. On it he built a small white frame cottage where Patrick, his wife Catherine, and six children lived, plus a second home closer to the street, which the O'Learys rented out. Next to the cottage, abutting Jefferson St., was a cow barn, which housed five cows, a horse, and a calf. The family also parked their wagon in the barn.

Mrs. O'Leary sold the milk from their cows throughout the neighborhood, a working-class Irish immigrant district sometimes known as "the Patch," (a common name for Irish areas in the city). With her income added to that of her husband's, plus rents from the second home on their lot, they supported a middle-class lifestyle, notably better than most of their neighbors. Much of the rest of the neighborhood was composed of simple wooden shanty houses, plus several factories and warehouses.

The summer of 1871 was an especially dry one in Chicago, with barely any rain. Minor fires had broken out several times, putting a strain on the city's fledgling fire department, which had been formed only a bit more than ten years before, after the big Water Street Fire of 1857.

The day before the Fire, October 7, was a Saturday, and a substantial conflagration just north of the Patch, at Canal and Adams, had destroyed several city blocks, employing all available firefighting equipment and men in the city. On Sunday, many of the city's firefighters took the day to sleep off the exhaustion, and those who didn't tended to the upkeep of the engines and other equipment which had taken damage in the Saturday fire.

In those days before telephones, every fire house had a tower where a man was stationed at all hours to watch the city for blazes. In addition, a fireman always occupied the top of the courthouse at Washington and Clark Streets. If a fire was spotted, an alarm was pulled that signified the area of the fire, and a runner notified the nearest station. On Sunday night, October 8th, the atmosphere above the city was still full of cinder and smoke from the Saturday night fire, so when the courthouse watcher saw a red glow coming from the Southwest side, he perceived the fire as much farther off than it really was, and a call was sent out to Canalport and Halsted Streets, more than a mile beyond the O'Leary barn, where the real fire was ablaze at 9:15 that evening.

Had there not been a major fire the day before, and had the courthouse watcher correctly perceived the area of the fire, the Great Fire never would have been. But the dry conditions and the brisk southwesterly wind that evening quickly moved the flames east toward the Chicago River, where the furniture factories supplied tinder and the coal warehouses lining the riverbank supplied coke. At midnight, fire crossed the River, and the very real prospect of losing the city became apparent. Buildings were blown up with gunpowder in an attempt to create a barrier to save downtown, but to no avail. The business district went under, and by morning, the flames leapt the central branch of the Chicago River, attacking the North side, where the vast majority of the fatalities occurred as residents unsuccessfully attempted to escape over the Chicago Ave. and North Ave. bridges.

The scene throughout the day on Monday was worse than any described by Dante as desperate men ravaged the city under the heat of impending doom, looting anything that could be carted off, killing each other in the streets over pocket change, and drinking dry the bars behind abandoned saloons. Horses, dogs, cows, and vermin, made wild by the heat and smoke, ran through the streets in thundering herds to their demise.

The Chicago Post described the scene a few days later:
The people were mad. Despite the police -- indeed, the police were powerless -- they crowded upon frail coigns of vantage, as fences and high sidewalks propped on wooden piles, which fell beneath their weight, and hurled them, bruised and bleeding, in the dust. They stumbled over broken furniture and fell, and were trampled under foot. Seized with wild and causeless panics, they surged together, backwards and forwards, in the narrow streets, cursing, threatening, imploring, fighting to get free. Liquor flowed like water; for the saloons were broken open and despoiled, and men on all sides were to be seen frenzied with drink...Everywhere dust, smoke, flame, heat, thunder of falling walls, crackle of fire, hissing of water, panting of engines, shouts, braying of trumpets, wind, tumult, and uproar!
Finally, by Monday evening the fire burned itself out against Lincoln Park, having reached as far north as Fullerton Ave. The city police, which had been powerless to stop the endless acts of crime the evening before, were joined by the Illinois militia and U.S. army in patrolling the streets, and finally ended the violence -- although there was really little left to fight over. Chicago remained under martial law for another two weeks, during which time seven arsonists caught attempting to restart fires were executed, and an eighth was stoned on site by a lynch mob.

The extent of obliteration was unparalleled. The first photo below shows Michigan Ave. (note the Water Tower at Michigan and Chicago Ave., visible in the middle of the photo, which still stands today). The second photo shows the intersection of State and Madison Streets, one of the world's busiest corners.

That the Fire started in the O'Leary barn, no one disputes. However, it is the greatest mystery in Chicago history exactly how the Fire started. The traditional theory, and one that gained currency immediately after the Fire (possibly due to jealous and angry neighbors) was that Mrs. O'Leary had gone to the barn to milk a cow for a delivery the next morning. Placing her lantern in the hay while she procured the milk, the bovine kicked over the lantern, setting the dry hay on fire.

While not out of the realm of possibility, the story seems unlikely on several counts. First, as the O'Leary family habitually repeated when asked about the Fire, "Why would anyone milk a cow at 9:15 in the evening?" The cows were typically milked in the late afternoon around 4:30, when no lantern would be needed. Next, several eyewitnesses placed the O'Leary family at home in bed at the time of the Fire, being awakened by the cries of a neighbor. Finally, if Mrs. O'Leary had seen the fire start, why wouldn't she have notified neighbors or pulled a fire alarm in an attempt to save her home and livelihood?

Admitting these weaknesses with the traditional theory, a number of alternative theories have been put forward, though none has any substantial evidence to support it.

The O'Leary family always supported a theory of spontaneous combustion in the dry green hay. Others theorized that neighborhood toughs were accustomed to settling into the barn at night to drink beer and carouse, and that one of them dropped a cinder from a pipe that night. Others argued that perhaps the family renting the front cottage on De Koven from the O'Learys were stealing milk from the barn for a celebration that evening, and knocked over a lantern when they heard someone coming -- but, as a 1948 investigative writer asked, "who ever heard of an Irishman using milk punch as a chaser for beer?"

Another theory, and perhaps the most intriguing, is that the Fire was started by one of the O'Leary neighbors, who was initially feted as a hero. Dennis Sullivan, who lived across the street, was known as "Pegleg" for the wooden prosthesis he wore in place of a lost limb. It was he who first noticed the fire in the barn, shouted "fire! fire! fire!" up and down the street, and knocked on the door of the O'Leary cottage to awaken the family. In the common story of the fire, upon seeing the flames, Pegleg first ran into the barn in an attempt to save the cows and the family wagon. He tripped and broke his wooden leg, then was able to use one of the animals as a crutch to escape the barn, at which point he awakened the O'Learys and the rest of the neighborhood.

In the alternative, but unproved, version of the story, Pegleg was relaxing in the barn, smoking his pipe and enjoying a surreptitious drink when he himself started the fire by accident. He broke his leg attempting to escape from the fire, then awakened the O'Learys and the rest of the neighbors. Sullivan and his relatives denied this claim for years, but the possibility remains.

A Tribune editorial from November 16, 1871, lists the "Mormon" theory, as well as some other rather implausible ones:
Leaving out of account the fact that Chicago, according to the architects, ought to have burned up years ago, and leaving the Fire Commissioners to settle the responsibility of the Fire Department were they may, we still have the O'Leary cow, the man with a pipe who passed through the O'Leary back-yard just before the fire, the Paris Communists, the petroleum in the building stones, the wrath of God, the presence of distilleries in the city, the iniquity of the divorce business, the loyalty of Chicago during the war while the South was being ravaged (this is the Southern rationale of the fire), and various other primal causes of our disaster to fall back upon, -- all of which, taken together, ought to prove sufficient at least.

But, as if this were not so, and more causes still were needed, Elder Lindsley, one of Brigham Young's colonization agents, has informed the public of New York, in a sermon preached last Sunday, that the fire happened because the people of Illinois drove "God's chosen people" (i.e., the Mormons) out of the state some twenty years ago.
Despite the fact that the Fire burned down most of the city, it is ironic that the O'Leary cottage itself survived the flames. Nevertheless, the family had lost a substantial portion of its income with the livestock gone, their reputation in the city was destroyed, and they were constantly harassed by reporters and curiosity-seekers. Several circuses offered to pay Mrs. O'Leary handsomely to travel with them and be displayed, alongside a cow, in the sideshow.

Catherine forced her husband to sell the cottage, and the family moved to what was then the far South side, in the stockyards district, where they lived on Halsted Street until Mr. O'Leary's death in 1894 and his wife's in 1895. Their son, "Big Jim" O'Leary, who was only two years old at the time, had a difficult time living down his family name, and became a major underworld gambling figure between the 1890s and 1920s. The last of the O'Leary children passed in 1936.

The O'Leary cottage at 137 De Koven Street passed through several hands, including those of Max Lipman, who owned the property during another (much smaller) fire in the cottage in 1899, and Sarah Koal, who was injured in 1901 at a theater on Twelfth Street when someone mistakenly yelled "Fire!", causing a stampede. During the latter part of the 1880s and 1890s, the neighborhood, which had never been particularly tony, became a notoriously blighted slum, and most of the old buildings left after the fire simply fell apart. In the 1910s, the cottage was finally razed and replaced with a three-story brick apartment flat.

In 1928, the owner of the building, Angelo Pacelli, sold it to the city for over $30,000, and plans for a memorial were announced. But the Depression intervened, and no memorial was ever built. In 1954, the city committee in charge of urban renewal claimed the property for $6,500 (a sign of just how far the neighborhood had fallen) with plans to rezone it for warehouse use. Mayor Richard J. Daley, however, saw the opportunity for symbolic political effect, and managed to save the property for use by the Chicago Fire Department.

In 1961, the Chicago Fire Academy was built on the site, and an Evanston sculptor, Egon Weiner, was commissioned to build the 30 foot "Pillar of Fire" which sits today on the spot where the O'Leary barn once stood. Describing the religious symbolism of the sculpture, Weiner said:
The three intertwined flames symbolize the Holy Trinity, as does the triangular source of light at the base. Fire itself is a symbol in all religions.


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