Chicago’s proximity to the farms of the Midwest and its rail links to both the east and west coasts of America meant that by 1870 it was one of the nation’s most important cities – its population had tripled in the course of the previous decade to nearly 300,000.
However, this rapid expansion led to uncontrolled growth of ramshackle buildings, slums and factories, creating a massive fire hazard.
Meanwhile, the city’s fire service failed to keep pace with population growth, which meant that there were only 17 fire engines covering the entire city. Throw in a dry summer, and conditions were ripe for disaster.
It struck on the evening of 8 October 1871. A fire began in a barn in the city. Even today the exact causes are disputed – theories range from the overturning of a lantern during an illicit dice game, to shards landing from a passing comet.
The fire rapidly spiralled out of control – sparks were even carried across the Chicago River, causing it to spread all across the city. In all, poor building quality and a lack of organisation meant the fire lasted for two days before burning itself out on the 10th.
More than 2,000 acres were damaged and a third of the population was left homeless, with $220m-worth of damage done to property ($4.3bn in 2013 prices). But at 300 deaths, casualties were relatively low, compared to the 2,500 who died in a fire in the Midwestern town of Peshtigo around the same time.
Chicago’s citizens almost immediately began to raise money and rebuilt on the scorched earth. By 1880, Chicago’s population hit 503,185; its first skyscraper was completed in 1885.