One hundred and forty years ago this month, Chicago burned. An exceptionally dry autumn and steady, strong winds created a deadly opportunity. The orange glow could be seen from as far away as Naperville, twenty six miles west.
Guy Sabin, a student at Naperville's North Central College wrote about the event in his diary:
Monday, Oct. 9, 1871, 9:00 p.m.
They got a dispatch that a fire had been raging in Chicago since last night, at 9 o’clock. Reports
at dark said it was almost all burnt down, and the fire was still going. The light of the fire can be seen from here.
Tuesday, Oct. 10, 1871
Went in to Chicago at 8:20. Was no school. The Pres. and Professors all went. Most of the city lays in ruins. Amos got a horse and buggy at Salisbury and Mark Castle, Amos and I rode over the ruins. They think it was set afire.
Wednesday, October 11, 1871, 9:45:
Father went in to Chicago at 7. Came home at 6. Mary Rogers came with him. The fire is nearly all put out.
While the Mrs. O'Leary's cow story was later found to be made up by a creative reporter, the fire was determined to have started on DeKoven Street, which was named for John DeKoven. John's wife, Helen Hadduck, was the granddaughter of Dexter Graves who sailed with Joseph Naper from Ohio to start anew in Illinois.
In a largely wooden city, fires were common and both the city and its citizens probably under-reacted to the threat. In fact, the fire department was trying to recover from fighting a fire just the day before. By the time everyone realized how serious the fire was, controlling it was all but impossible.
Reports say more than 100,000 people lost their homes and the death toll was in the hundreds. The fire burned from Sunday until Tuesday, jumping across the river and destroying the water works that supplied water for the fire department. Finally, the winds died down, rain slowed the fire's spread, and the smouldering rubble burned itself out.