How the Right Insurance Helped Victims after the Great Chicago Fire

And how learning from it can help you can prepare for your own worst disasters.
Christine Lacagnina Written by Christine Lacagnina
Christine Lacagnina
Written by Christine Lacagnina

Christine Lacagnina has written thousands of insurance-based articles for by authoring consumable, understandable content.

paul martin Reviewed by Paul Martin
paul martin
Reviewed by Paul Martin

Paul Martin is the Director of Education and Development for Myron Steves, one of the largest, most respected insurance wholesalers in the southern U.S.

Great Chicago Fire

When the worst imaginable disasters strike, fortunately insurance is there to help douse the flames. After the Great Chicago Fire wreaked havoc on the city in 1871, it left hundreds dead and thousands of buildings destroyed. But though the fire was devastating, victims were fortunately able to rely on important coverages like property and business insurance to help them get back to their lives.

Fortunately for you, an independent insurance agent can help you prepare for your own worst disasters, as far as getting set up with the right coverage. Independent insurance agents have handled all kinds of catastrophes, and they know which coverages are required for all of them. But first, here’s a closer look at the Great Chicago Fire and all the ways insurance helped victims reclaim their lives after the town went up in flames.

What Was the Impact of the Great Chicago Fire?

The blaze of the Great Chicago Fire (aka the Chicago Fire of 1871) only burned for three days, from October eighth through October tenth, 1871. That was more than long enough to cause a great deal of destruction. Several theories exist as to what caused the start of the fire, which originated in resident Catherine O’Leary’s barn, including that the family’s cow kicked over a lantern. The true cause of the fire remains unknown, but the impact of the catastrophe is still observed today.

Quick stats about the Great Chicago Fire:

  • An estimated 300 deaths were reported
  • An estimated $200 million in damage was reported (nearly $4 billion today)
  • The fire affected an area nearly four miles long and one mile wide
  • Theories for the cause of the fire also include a drunken neighbor, spontaneous combustion, milk thieves, and vandals
  • Several months of drought left the town vulnerable to fire
  • Strong winds caused the flames to spread rapidly
  • Wooden buildings, sidewalks, and streets also allowed the fire to spread
  • 17,450 buildings were reportedly destroyed
  • 100,000 people were left homeless
  • Looting and other dangerous crimes took place in response to the fire
  • About one-third of the city and its population were affected
  • Massive rainfall finally aided firefighters in extinguishing the flames

Though the Great Chicago Fire took a devastating toll on the city, fortunately victims were able to receive financial aid and help recover through insurance.

Who Provided Help to the Victims of the Great Chicago Fire?

Former Chicago Mayor Roswell B. Mason, Common Council President Charles C.P. Holden, and a constructed group of elected officials and respected town residents formed a Relief Committee following the fire. The Relief Committee organized and distributed food, important supplies, and money to victims of the fire. Chicago was granted about $5 million in donations from around the world in response to the catastrophe, all of which went to helping the city and fire victims.

How Did Property Insurance Help Victims Get Back to Their Lives?

Luckily for victims of the Great Chicago Fire, property insurance further helped them to rebuild their lives. Property insurance coverage provided relief to fire victims in the following ways:

  • Rebuilding homes and ending homelessness: Property insurance pays to rebuild homes in the event they are destroyed by a covered peril such as a fire. For the 100,000 fire victims who were left temporarily homeless, property insurance coverage provided the financial assistance necessary to rebuild their homes, as well as reimburse for fees associated with temporary housing.
  • Replacing personal property: Property insurance also allowed fire victims to replace, repair, and recover from lost, damaged, stolen, or destroyed personal belongings such as clothing, furniture, silverware, etc. Property insurance typically covers personal property up to 50% to 70% of the insured value of the structure of the home if it’s lost/damaged/destroyed by a fire.
  • Replacing greenery outside homes: Property coverage also includes reimbursement for foliage around the home, including trees, plants, and shrubs if they are damaged or destroyed by a fire. Today, limits typically cap at $500 per plant, but coverage amounts can be increased. Victims of the Great Chicago Fire were able to repair their gardens thanks to property insurance.

Though you’ll likely never be a victim of a fire that destroys one-third of your town, it’s still good to know all the ways property insurance helped those impacted by the Great Chicago Fire to better understand what this coverage can do for you.

Is Fire Coverage Part of Every Homeowners Policy?

Luckily for victims of the Great Chicago Fire, yes, fire is one of the main perils covered by homeowners insurance. Standard homeowners policies across the map include coverage for damage and liabilities caused by fires. The fire protection included in homeowners insurance covers not only the structure of the home, but also personal property stored inside of it, and detached structures like sheds or garages.

Homeowners insurance also includes coverage for additional living expenses (ALE) if you’re forced to temporarily live elsewhere while awaiting repairs to your home. Coverage provided by ALE can be applied to stays in hotel rooms, meals out, extra gas mileage, and more.

No matter where you’re located in the country, your homeowners policy should automatically include protection against fire damage, since fires are one of the main concerns insurance companies have. But without homeowners insurance, victims of a fire like the Great Chicago Fire would have to pay for damage out of pocket. Talk to your independent insurance agent to get your home set up with all the coverage it needs against fires and other disasters.


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If Cars Had Been Invented, How Would Car Insurance Have Helped Victims?

The victims of the Great Chicago Fire were still a couple of decades away from having automobiles, but if this event happened more recently, car insurance would also have played a major role in helping folks get back to their lives. Auto insurance can help victims of fires in the following ways:

  • Repairs: In the event of a fire, it would be comprehensive car insurance, which covers damage caused by hazards other than collisions, that would compensate victims for repairs to their vehicles.
  • Replacement: Victims of a fire would also be reimbursed for the replacement of their vehicle in the event it got totaled by a fire, as long as they had comprehensive coverage.
  • Rental cars: Auto insurance provides rental cars for those awaiting repairs to their vehicles to allow them to continue to commute to work, run errands, etc.
  • Medical payments: Victims of fires and other disasters can be compensated by their auto insurance policy for medical payments during treatment for their injuries.

Even though cars weren’t around quite yet during the Great Chicago Fire, it’s interesting to see all the ways auto insurance could have helped victims. Your independent insurance agent can fill you in on even more ways your auto insurance policy can protect you from your own disasters.

How Did Business Insurance Help Owners Get Back to Work?

Though they may not have been driving, many victims of the Great Chicago Fire were operating businesses at the time of the disaster. Fortunately for them, business insurance helped them to get back to work ASAP.

Business insurance helped victims of the Great Chicago Fire in the following ways:

  • Repairs to the business’s structure: Business insurance policies provide protection against property damage to businesses that’s caused by fires.
  • Replacement of inventory: Business insurance also covers fire damage to inventory.
  • Protection against bankruptcy: Business insurance helps owners to repair their property and replace lost inventory without having to pay out of their own pocket.
  • Replacement of lost income/wages: Business insurance helps owners recover lost income while their doors are temporarily closed for repairs, and also pays to compensate employees while they are out of work.

Business insurance was extremely important for professionals at the time of the Great Chicago Fire, and it’s still an essential coverage today.

What Happened to Victims Whose Insurance Policies Burned in the Fire?

Thankfully, they were still covered. Even without the original physical copy of the insurance policy document, policyholders are still covered. Insurance policies remain in force for as long as the policyholder continues to pay their premium, and their coverage is still within its dictated terms. No changes or gaps would have been created to insurance held by victims in the event their policies got burned in the fire.

Should you happen to lose your original insurance policy in a fire or any other disaster, don’t lose sleep over it. Insurance companies are obligated to send you a replacement copy if you put in a request for one. The only catch is that it may take a couple of weeks for you to get the copy, which could be problematic if you’ve lost the original document and need to file a claim. Your independent insurance agent can help you obtain a new copy of your policy, if necessary.

Are Victims of the Great Chicago Fire and the City Back to Normal Now?

While sadly all victims of the Great Chicago Fire have long since passed, it’s fortunate that important insurance coverages helped them to resume their normal lives following the tragedy. Homeowners insurance allowed victims to repair or rebuild their homes and end temporary homelessness, and business insurance allowed professionals to recover lost income and resume normal operations as quickly as possible.

Following the fire, Chicago was reportedly able to rebuild quickly. By 1880, the city had surpassed 500,000 residents, compared to the estimated 324,000 around the time of the fire. The following decade also brought new and smarter construction, with even taller buildings emerging in the downtown area, which Chicago has since become famous for. Offices, stores, and homes were rebuilt quickly, and displaced residents were able to return and resume life.

Interestingly, in 1997, almost 126 years after the fire, Chicago’s Committee on Police and Fire voted to finally exonerate former town resident Catherine O’Leary and her cow. O’Leary and her cow had been blamed for the start of the blaze for more than a century. Historians and O’Leary’s great-great-granddaughter testified that she had been wrongfully accused. Remaining family members were relieved that O’Leary was finally publicly declared to have been innocent all along.

Here’s How an Independent Insurance Agent Can Help Protect You from Your Own Disasters

You’ll hopefully never encounter a natural disaster as destructive as the Great Chicago Fire, but independent insurance agents can certainly help protect you from your own disasters. Independent insurance agents search through multiple carriers to find providers who specialize in home, auto, business, and all other forms of insurance, deliver quotes from a number of different sources, and help you walk through them all to find the best blend of coverage and cost.

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