Local News

January 22, 2014

Do you know what this is?


This past week's artifact from the Nelson Pioneer Farm is glass from the Chicago fire of 1872.

No one ventured a guess as to the identity of the artifact.

Nelson Pioneer Farm Curator Kelly Halbert did some research on the artifact. She wrote: “Glass from the Chicago Fire

This small lump of gray is actually 16 to 20 panes of glass, melted together during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The smoky gray color is probably the original color of the glass; we also have a larger piece from the fire that is a bright, sky blue in the museum’s collection. In order for these many layers to fix to each other so the temperature of the fire had to be more than 1400° C.

The great Chicago Fire occurred during the dry, hot autumn of 1871. Since most of the city was built of wood, stacks of firewood were piled between residences for convenience, and many homes had barns out back strewn with dry straw for the animals. Another contributing factor to this fire was strong wind from the south that gusted at about 60 mph.

Late in the evening on October 8, a fire broke out in the barn behind the home of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. It caught quickly and spread north and east, burning for 2 days until a rain shower put it out. Eventually 100,000 people were homeless and 300 were dead. Damages ran about $200,000, the business district was leveled, the city was completely devastated.

The cause of this fire has never been determined. The most popular theory is that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lantern when she was milking. While this was a plausible explanation, it was false – Mrs. O’Leary had already finished milking the cow and was inside the house with her lantern when the fire started. Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Ahern who originally accused the cow confessed in the 1893 that he made the story up in order to sell more newspapers. Other theories expressed were that a spark from a neighbor’s chimney lit the straw, that a man stealing milk dropped a lantern or that there was a poker game going on behind the shed.

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