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That Fire

It is a small note, tucked into the genealogy page of the Cook County Clerk’s website.

Courthouse before

“Please note,” reads the statement, in its entirety, “the Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871 destroyed all county vital records prior to that date.”1

The National Weather Service has a similar brief statement about its weather station at 181 West Washington Street in Chicago: “Station abandoned October 8, 1871 in Great Chicago Fire – all records lost.”2

These are joined by an answer to a frequently-asked question at the National Archives-Chicago website:

Q. Do you have Chicago records created before the Chicago Fire of 1871?

A. We have a limited amount of original records that document Chicago prior to the Chicago Fire of 1871. Unfortunately, the majority of Federal court records for Chicago were lost in the Fire.3

Courthouse after

The same sad refrain is sung over and over at repository after repository and website after website:

     • “Be aware that some records were lost in the Chicago fire of 1871.”4

     • “8-10 October 1871: Original marriage licenses for Cook County were destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire.”5

     • “October 9, 1871 — Fire. Total record loss (1831–1871).”6

     • “Lincoln’s original (Emancipation Proclamation) manuscript was lost in the Chicago Fire of 1871.”7

     • “(M)ost of the city’s voting records were destroyed in the fire.”8

And it all began 141 years ago today.

It probably wasn’t a cow kicking over a lantern that caused the fire. That story was fabricated by a Chicago Tribune reporter, as apparently even the Chicago Tribune now admits. In 1997, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution exonerating both Mrs. O’Leary and her cow.9

It likely did begin in or certainly near Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, just about 9 p.m. on Sunday, 8 October 1871.10 And by the time it was over, some roughly 36 hours later, almost every archive, library and record repository of the city, county and federal government located in the fire zone was gone.

The Cook County Courthouse — pictured here before and after — took just 39 minutes to go.11 “It was an imposing edifice built in 1855 of Lockport limestone. Its tower commanded a fine view of the city and lake.”12

The Chicago Historical Society Building could not be saved, and many who took refuge there perished:

Mr. (William) Corkran (Librarian of the Historical Society) ran up the cellar stairs and went into the reading room on the ground floor, and thence hurried up into the library room. At that time there did not seem to be any symptoms of fire in the roof. Then, going down stairs again into the lecture and pamphlet room, he saw flames rushing up stairs, and made his exit as hurriedly as possible. Nothing was saved from the building, not even the Emancipation Proclamation, and it is now an utter and hopeless wreck.13

The newspaper accounts of the fire and the loss of life are stunning:

     • “FIRE! Destruction of Chicago,” read the headline in the Chicago Tribune, “2,600 Acres of Buildings Destroyed; Eighty Thousand People Burned Out; All the Hotels, Banks, Public Buildings, Newspaper Offices and Great Business Blocks Swept Away; Over a Hundred Dead Bodies Recovered from the Debris.”14

     • “The night was clear and almost cloudless, although the atmosphere was murky with smoke. From the southwest a strong wind was blowing, and, seemingly determined to aid the destroying demon, it gradually increased to almost a gale as the fierce flames leaped from one building to another, enveloping block after block in an awful indescribable burning hell.”15

     • “MANY HUMAN BEINGS have perished in the flames — how many no one can tell. Perhaps no one will ever be able to tell, but it is known that some have perished, and there is only a heart-sickening fear that the victims of the fiery monster may be counted by scores.
     “HUNDREDS OF HORSES AND COWS have been burned in stables, and on the north side numbers of animals, though released from confinement, were so bewildered and confused by the sea of fire which surrounded them, that they rushed wildly to and fro uttering cries of fright and pain until scorched and killed.
     “Any attempt at a description of the scenes of this appalling calamity would be idle. The simple fact (is) that the once great city of Chicago is destroyed…”16

You can’t help but think of the people lost, and the family history that perished with them — the stories, the memories, and the hopes and dreams.

About the only thing I could find to counter the total doom and gloom here was the existence of a continuing education class at Chicago’s Newberry Library taught by Matt Rutherford and Ginger Frere that carries the hopeful title It Didn’t All Go Up in Flames: Exploring Pre-Fire Chicago at the Newberry. It’s part of the Library’s Adult Education Seminars Program and is ongoing now.

But oh… those records and the human history we lost in those 36 hours, starting 141 years ago today…


  1. Genealogy Records,” Vital Records, Cool County Clerk ( : accessed 7 Oct 2012).
  2. National Weather Service, “Weather Observations for the City of Chicago,” History of the Chicago and Rockford weather observation sites ( : accessed 7 Oct 2012).
  3. Our Archival Collections FAQs,” FAQs, National Archives at Chicago ( : accessed 7 Oct 2012).
  4. Joe Beine, Chicago Genealogy Records and Sources on the Internet ( : accessed 7 Oct 2012).
  5. FamilySearch Research Wiki (, “Cook County, Illinois,” rev. 22 Aug 2012.
  6. Illinois State Archives, “Documented Record Losses,” Cook County ( : accessed 7 Oct 2012).
  7. RJ Norton, “The Emancipation Proclamation and Mary Lincoln’s Jewelry On Display at the ALPLM,” Lincoln Discussion Symposium, posted 31 Aug 2012 ( : accessed 7 Oct 2012).
  8. Chicago Fire: Aftermath,” Chicago Fire of 1871, ( : accessed 7 Oct 2012).
  9. See “Mrs. O’Leary,” Highlights, Chicago Tribune Online ( : accessed 7 Oct 2012).
  10. The Great Conflagration,” The Great Chicago Fire, Chicago History Museum ( : accessed 7 Oct 2012).
  11. “Chicago in Ashes,” New York Tribune, 10 Oct 1871, p. 1, col, 1; digital images, “Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers,” Library of Congress ( : accessed 7 Oct 2012).
  12. Ibid., “The Burned Buildings,” p. 1, col. 4.
  13. “Great Loss of Life – Horrible Occurrence,” Chicago Tribune, 11 Oct 1871, p. 1, col. 5; digital images, ( : accessed 7 Oct 2012).
  14. Ibid., p. 1, col. 1.
  15. “Chicago Destroyed!,” New York Sun, 10 Oct 1871, p. 1, col. 1; digital images, “Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers,” Library of Congress ( : accessed 7 Oct 2012).
  16. Ibid., “The Progress of the Conflagration at 5 o’clock Yesterday Afternoon,” p. 1, col. 3.
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