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The Cow That Destroyed Chicago
Or "Why We Celebrate National Fire Prevention Week"

On October 8, 1871, a major disaster changed a lot of people's lives and taught us a lot about fire safety. The disaster left 900,000 people homeless, killed 300 people, and destroyed more than 2,000 acres -- or about 3-1/2 square miles -- of land in the center of Chicago.

That disaster was called the Great Chicago Fire. It was one of the most destructive fires ever seen in the United States. Each year, we remember the Great Chicago Fire by calling the week of October 8 National Fire Prevention Week.

What started the fire that caused such major destruction? No one knows for sure, but this is what many people think happened that day:

Back in October 1871 -- that's 126 years ago now -- Chicago was just beginning to grow into the big city that it is today. In the ten years before that date, the city's population had tripled in size. One Chicago family, the O'Leary family, lived in a small wooden cottage. Behind their house was a barn where they kept cows and other animals.

On Sunday night between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m., Mrs. O'Leary went out to the barn. No one is sure exactly why she went. Some people say she went to check on a sick cow. Others say she went to get fresh milk. She brought a kerosene lamp with her, which she placed on the floor of the barn. The cow kicked it over and set the wooden boards of the barn on fire. The flames spread quickly.

A neighbor pulled the nearest alarm, which was 3-1/2 blocks away, but it was broken. Meanwhile Mr. O'Leary and other neighbors tried to put out the fire themselves but they could not. The fire spread and soon the hay in the loft was in flames. A fire watchman who was in the tower of the Courthouse saw the flames and guessed where the fire was. Unfortunately, he was wrong and all but one of the fire engines went to the wrong location.

Because most of the buildings were made of wood and everything was dry because it hadn't rained, the fire spread from building to building quickly. Firefighters from as far away as New York were called upon to help put out the flames. But the fire continued to burn until almost midnight on Monday, more than 24 hours after the fire began. Then it began to rain. That helped the already tired firefighters get the fire under control.

Source: National Safe Kids Campaign
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