PHOTOS: Hardly any rain had fallen on Chicago for months, and the drought was getting worse. Over the 22 days leading up to October 8, 1871, it had rained only once—a measly 0.11 inches. “Under the burning sun for so many weeks, the whole city became virtually a tinderbox,” recalled William Bross, one of the Chicago Tribune’s owners.
A mere 35 years earlier, Chicago had been a frontier outpost with a few thousand inhabitants, but now it was the commercial metropolis at the heart of the Midwest, growing at an astonishing pace as it drew people from around the country and from Europe, mostly German and Irish immigrants.
By 1870, it was the United States’ fifth-largest city, with a population of 300,000. And for the most part, it was made of wood.