Revisiting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, about how art institutions are helping audiences discover new options for the future.

It was 150 years ago that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a candle, touching off the Great Chicago Fire, or so the legend goes.

The blaze, which burned for three days in October 1871, killed 300 people and left more than 100,000 homeless.

In reality, however, nobody knows what started the fire. That is but one of the revelations in a new exhibition marking the anniversary of the tragedy, “City on Fire: Chicago 1871,” on display through August 2025 at the Chicago History Museum.

Designed for families, with many interactive elements, the exhibition follows the path of the fire, from the barn of the Irish immigrant O’Leary family where it is believed the fire began, traveling east and north through the city. Visitors can learn about the fire’s destruction, the decisions citizens made as they fled and the city’s recovery efforts that eventually led to new fire safety procedures.

The museum, which was founded in 1856 as the Chicago Historical Society, lost its original building and most of its collection in the fire and moved to its current home in 1932.

It is also running public programs related to the exhibition. These include bus tours, offered through Oct. 31 in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Center, that will follow the fire’s path and point out highlights of the city’s recovery, and a talk on Dec. 9 on the legacy of African American firefighters in Chicago.

One family program, offered in partnership with the design collective Chicago Mobile Makers, will let participants build a model city that works for all people. Another is “Fire in Boomtown” — performances by the musicians and storytellers Amy Lowe and Megan Wells-Shunk, based on their 1998 CD of the same name; the museum describes the performances as a “musical mix of commentary, theater and history.”

Julius L. Jones, an assistant curator at the museum who curated the exhibition, said Chicago in 1871 faced issues it still confronts today. “It was a big city, with big-city problems — the fastest-growing city in the world,” he said. “There were issues of class and race and ethnicity, social and economic tensions.”

Among the immigrant and minority groups in the city were Germans, Irish and Eastern Europeans, as well as African Americans, whom Mr. Jones described as a “small but vibrant community.”

The exhibition dispels some myths about the fire, including the tale of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a candle and starting the fire in the family’s barn.

At the time, immigrants were “blamed for all the city’s vices and social ills,” Mr. Jones said, adding, “Blaming her takes on a life of its own. We don’t know what started the fire.”

He hopes there will be modern resonances to the exhibition. “People will be able to draw parallels between how nonnative-born immigrants were perceived in 1871 and how in some pockets of discourse immigrants are discussed today,” he said.

One reason the fire spread so quickly was the widespread use of wood, not just in buildings but also in street pavers and water pipes. Unusual weather conditions also contributed: The exhibition says the weather was “unseasonably hot,” over 80 degrees, “much higher than normal for this time of year,” as well as dry and windy.

Moreover, firefighters were exhausted from putting out so many earlier fires.

Among the objects on display are lithographs and photographs made at the time of the fire; equipment used by local firefighters; supposed fragments of the O’Leary barn that were sold as souvenirs; items that were fused together during the fire, including pocket watches, teacups, plates, coins and knitting needles; and charred cookies that resemble pieces of charcoal.

One of the most interesting items is a modern photographic replica of the study for the 47-foot by 380-foot cyclorama of the fire made in 1892 for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Mr. Jones said the original cyclorama was destroyed and sold for scrap in the early 1900s. An adjacent, interactive touch-screen provides information on what today occupies the scenes in the replica cyclorama.

Another section of the exhibition is devoted to Julia Lemos, a widow who supported her five children and parents by working as an artist at an illustration company in downtown Chicago. In bed when the fire reached her home, “I thought I was dreaming, the whole street was crowded with people,” she later recalled, “the sky was reflecting fire.”

A manuscript she wrote on her experiences during the fire and her 1912 oil painting called “Memories of the Chicago Fire of 1871” are on display.

Also featured in the exhibition is the Hudlin family. Anna Elizabeth Hudlin was born free in Pennsylvania, while her husband, Joseph, was born into slavery in Virginia but escaped. They met and married in St. Louis, moved to Chicago in 1855 and had five children.

Mr. Hudlin worked downtown as a porter at the Chicago Board of Trade; during the fire, he went there to rescue important documents. Mr. Jones said that this allowed the Board of Trade to resume operations quickly after the fire and that Mr. Hudlin was “credited as a hero.”

Mrs. Hudlin opened their home — in Chicago’s South Division, away from the path of the fire — to people the fire displaced; Mr. Jones said she became known as the “angel of the fire.”

The end of the exhibition discusses fire safety reforms in place today. For example, a fire that swept the city in 1874 led to a ban on the construction of wood-frame buildings downtown. Steel frames were required for new buildings, including some of the world’s first skyscrapers.

A fire in 1903 in the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago led to the practice of theater doors opening outward, rather than inward — the latter a design that can trap occupants, including during the 1903 fire. Mr. Jones said a fire in 1958 in the Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago led to “significant improvements in school fire safety,” including the installation of fire doors and automatic sprinklers.

“Fires that happened in and around Chicago later,” he said, “helped shape fire safety around the world.”

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