Village Museum Explores The Great Chicago Fire

Village Museum Explores "The Great Chicago Fire"
Posted on 01/09/2019

A staple of elementary school history classes was studying The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Theories on the fire’s origins continue nearly 150 years later.

Historian William Pack, author of “The Essential Great Chicago Fire,” will discuss the fire and its stories on Friday, March 8 at the Village of Orland Park History Museum.

“Those of us who grew up in the Chicago area remember what a big part of history class The Great Chicago Fire was,” said Trustee Kathy Fenton, village board liaison to the museum. “When we were kids, we were told that it was Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that kicked over a lit lantern that started the fire and it’s been fascinating to learn more about the different theories that have been shared since then.”

The Great Chicago Fire began the night of October 8, 1871 reportedly near a barn owned by Catherine and Patrick O’Leary at 137 DeKoven Street on the southwest side of the city. Dry weather coupled with wooden buildings, streets and sidewalks made the city vulnerable to the fire which quickly grew out of control.

Rain eventually helped the firefighting efforts and the fire was finally under control on October 10. It left an estimated 300 people dead and 100,000 homeless. More than 17,000 structures were destroyed and damages were estimated at $200 million.

Chicago Fire Map“The Great Chicago Fire is a big part of Chicago history,” said Museum Curator Sarah Stasukewicz. “It prompted the re-birth of the city and led to its growth. Chicago came back and took on a leadership role among Midwest cities.”

A professional magician, Pack grew up on the southwest side of Chicago and describes himself as “a library rat.”

“Luckily, the librarians let me have the run of the place. All sorts of books on all sorts of subjects ended up coming home with me. In the Back of the Yards Library, I became passionate about diverse subjects from magic to horror movies to history to critical thinking --- things that I’m still passionate about today,” he said.

The program begins at 6:30 p.m. and is tailored for teens and adults. Tickets are $10 for museum members and $15 for non-members. The museum is located on the site of Orland Park’s original village hall at 14415 South Beacon Avenue.

Pack has been presenting this topic for five years noting that he chooses subjects about which he is passionate, can tell in an interesting way and if it’s been neglected by other presenters.

“The Chicago Fire fit all three,” Pack said. “After doing several biographical programs, I wanted to express my passion for Chicago and Chicago history. Instead of presenting this as just a lecture, I try to tell it as a narrative. You get all the facts and figures but you also experience the drama of the fire through the eyes of the survivors. This engages both the intellect and emotions of the audience.”

Pack’s presentation includes more than 100 images many of which have never been seen. His pre-program slide show includes fun, interesting and odd Chicago trivia.

“This will be an entertaining presentation for anyone who enjoys Chicago history,” Fenton said.

“People who thought they knew about the Chicago Fire learn new things in my presentation,” Pack said. “Some people become emotionally involved with the characters.”

Addressing the fire’s origin, Pack said, “The truth of the matter is we don’t know. We know where it started. We know when it started. We know that the cow story is fiction.”

Mrs. O’Leary and her cow were posthumously exonerated by the Chicago City Council in 1997 after historians and O’Leary’s great great granddaughter testified. The Chicago Fire Department Training Academy now stands on the former site of the O’Leary Farm on West DeKoven Street.

Pack added, “There are a bunch of disproved theories and just as many disproved confessions. There is at least one credible theory that I touch upon during the program.”


  • Registration for the program is available online
  • In person at the Frederick T. Owens Village Hall, 14700 South Ravinia Avenue
  • Sportsplex, 11351 West 159th Street.
  • Registration is also available at the museum on Tuesdays from noon to 4 p.m. and Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m.

Questions may be directed to the museum at (708) 873-1622.