My Takeaway
From the Great Chicago Fire

One-hundred and fifty years ago today, the Great Chicago Fire started and raged for two days. In the aftermath of the fire, several hundred Chicagoans died, and 20,000 buildings were leveled. We all have read the story about a cow knocking over a lantern in the O’Leary’s barn, which caused the fire.

“I was told that this is the actual photograph of the cow causing the fire.”

This is what Chicago looked like during the fire.

This is Currier & Ives’ version of the fire.

After two days of that great conflagration, the scene reminded me of what Hiroshima or Nagasaki looked like at the end of WWII.

The aftermath

Michael Ahern, who wrote the newspaper report of the O’Leary’s cow knocking over the lantern, admitted that he made up the story. However, the genie was out of the bottle. However, his story reflected the anti-Irish mindset of the time.

Other storylines emerged over the years. They ranged from several drunk guys accidentally kicking over the lantern while gambling in the O’Leary barn to the Biela Comet causing the sky to rain down fire on Chicago. Historians don’t know how the fire started, but they know that O’Leary’s cow wasn’t the cause.

Historians have had a century and a half to determine how the Great Chicago Fire started and haven’t figured it out yet. From my point of view, what is far more important is learning about how the leaders in Chicago responded to that catastrophe. It was tragic, but they addressed a destroyed city. Instead of complaining, they understood that they could view the disaster as an opportunity to build back better, which they did.

Therefore, my takeaway from the Great Chicago Fire is a present-day parable or metaphor. Randy Pausch said in his Last Lecture, “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

As you journey down the yellow brick road of life, play your hand well. Often curses can become blessings if we address the problem.