Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O'Leary lit a lantern in the shed.
Her cow kicked it over, then winked her eye and said,
"There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight!"
There really was a Catherine O'Leary, her home really was Ground Zero for the fire, and she really did have a cow. But no one knows how the Great Chicago Fire started on Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871 -- though it's possible that Mrs. O'Leary's cow really did kick over a lantern. Whatever the cause, the fire was devastating. It raged throughout Monday and into Tuesday before finally being put out.
The calamity left homeless a mind-boggling one-third of Chicago (pop. 324,000), laid waste to its business district (17,000 buildings destroyed), and killed 300 people. Yet reconstruction gave Chicago a tremendous boost it might never have gotten otherwise, and in less than a decade, the population was 500,000.
A handful of structures were spared and are still standing, including St. Michael's Church in Old Town and the Chicago Water Tower and Chicago Avenue Pumping Station.
On This Day, previously:
• Oct. 9: Secrets of the Washington Monument, which opened to the public 125 years ago
• Oct. 4: Debut of suburban icon 'Leave It to Beaver' and its opposite, '90210'
• Sept. 26: On 'Brady Bunch' anniversary, we tour every room of its house
- Society & Culture