Great Chicago Fire of 1871

How weather played a role in the Chicago Fire of 1871

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Traveling is really the best education. My latest adventure took me to the “Windy City."  Yep, I’m talking about Chicago.

This trip was a bit about work and a bit about fun. My best friend and her husband moved there five years ago. I kept saying I’d come visit and last week. I finally did.

The city of Chicago sits on Lake Michigan, wedged between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Watershed, with the Chicago River running through the heart of the city.  Chicago became a city in 1837.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Weather blogs]

In my 3-day getaway, I visited the Hancock and Wills (if you are of my generation you know it as the “Sears Tower”) Towers, saw Wrigley field, ate deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati's, took in the sights and sound of the river walk and Navy Pier, did some shopping along Magnificent Mile, visited all the TV stations in town and took the Chicago Architectural Tour. (And that tour is one of the greatest things you can do to truly see the city.)

It is on this tour that I learned about not just the great buildings of the city but also about how the weather has played a role in several events throughout the city’s history.

The most significant historical event was the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The fire began on the night of October 8 and burned for more than 35 hours. Most of the country was in the middle of a drought that summer.  In the months leading up to the fire, Chicago had only recorded about 5 inches of rain, which put it 4 inches below normal for that time of year. Those conditions lead to it being the fifth driest autumn on record for Chicago.

Weather conditions the week of the blaze, one not a single drop of rain fell humidity was below 30 percent and winds raged at 20 mph out of the southwest.

The combination of the dry and windy weather along with the city’s infrastructure constructed almost entirely of wood caused the flames to spread quickly. Embers carried by the wind, ignited building after building. It is estimated at its peak the blaze was four miles long and one mile wide.

Eventually, the fire burned itself, on Oct 10, as winds diminished and a drizzle began to fall across the city. This fire cost the city nearly 200 million dollars. 

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