You’ve probably heard the story of the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Legend has it that a cow in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary kicked over a lantern and ignited the blaze. Two days later up to 300 people were dead, 17,450 buildings were destroyed and 100,000 people were homeless in the fire that caused $200,000,000 in damages ($3,000,000,000 in today’s dollars). Four square miles of the central business district were left in ruins but much of the city’s infrastructure like the water, sewage and transportation systems were left intact, owing to the use of stone to construct those buildings. Dry weather and a plethora of wooden buildings and sidewalks had allowed the blaze to spread quickly maximizing the damage. Other stories have been put forward about how the blaze started, ranging from the believable with human involvement to the incredible involving a comet. For what it is worth, Mrs. O’Leary and her cow were exonerated by the Chicago City Council in 1997, over 100 years after Catherine O’Leary died!
The fire did have some benefit. With a large swath of area to rebuild the new construction laid the groundwork for what we know as the modern Chicago. The population boomed, from about 325,000 at the time of the fire to 1,500,000 by 1893 and as a result Chicago became a major transportation and economic hub in the United States. There probably weren’t too many barns left in town though.