July 14

Chicago Fire of 1874


Just three years after The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 — the one supposedly started when an Irish woman’s careless cow knocked over a barn lantern — another massive conflagration hit the city.  The impact was severe, with more than 800 buildings destroyed, and over three and almost 4 million in damages (in 1874 dollars).

Severe, but not as wide-spread as in 1871.  City officials and newspapers struggled to name this latest event.  The Lesser Chicago Fire?  The Not-Quite-as Great Chicago Fire?  The Could-Have-Been-Worse Fire?  Such diminishing labels disrespected the magnitude of the recurrence.  Referring to it as The Oh-God-Why-Did-This-Happen-Again Chicago Fire would be more accurate than the proposed names of The Lesser Chicago Fire or the oxymoronic Little Big Fire.

History settled simply on “The Chicago Fire of 1874.”

If history is permitted to continue, the name for the current disaster will cast all previous labels into doubt.

This is the first time a Great Fire could be named after an entire North American state, rather than a city.   Not Chicago itself, but the entire state of Illinois.

No cows to blame, no stray candles tipping onto dried grass.  Smaller fires apparently rose spontaneously throughout the state — red- and white-hot flames turning buildings into crematoriums, burning fields and trees, fires leaping across roads and waterways to merge into a growing mass of roaring, unstoppable force.

The Fires of Apocalypse, obliterating an entire state.

And continuing to spread…