What Really Caused the Chicago Fire?

By Marc Roland. When I was a boy in the 1950s, my great-grandmother told me how she survived American history’s epic conflagration: the Great Chicago Fire. Despite Frances’s 90-plus years, she was still physically and mentally vigorous, with a photographic memory going back to her Civil War-era upbringing.

chicago-fire-1871

The old lady lucidly recalled that fateful Sunday night of Oct. 8, 1871, when, as a 20-year-old woman living at home with her parents on the Windy City’s south side, she was getting ready for bed sometime before 10 p.m. Just then, an indefinable yet ominous commotion began outside on the thoroughfare below. She threw open her second-story window to see a vast throng of hysterical people fleeing down 12th Street. Some carried bundles or screaming infants in their arms, or dragged haphazardly piled handcarts, but most ran screaming and shouting with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Looming up behind them was a rapidly advancing curtain of fire as wide as the horizon and hundreds of feet high, topped by mountainous billows of smoke garishly illuminated by the flames.

Read the entire article as a PDF here.


Taken from

The Barnes Review, January/February 2016: What Really Caused the Chicago Fire?

VOLUME XXII, NUMBER I


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