Great Lakes Fires Blamed on
Meteors by Jeff Provine
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Day in Alternate History. Please note that the opinions expressed in
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early night hours of Sunday, a fire started on the O'Leary property at 137
DeKoven Street that would spread to destroy some four square miles in
Chicago and kill hundreds of people.
There had been something of a drought, not much in the way of concern
for local fire departments, but enough to propel destruction among wooden
buildings on a strong wind. With its sudden start and widespread disaster
(famously, even the Moody church burned), citizens were highly suspicious
of arson and searched for a scapegoat.
At the time, Michael Ahern was a reporter for the Chicago Republican. He
had heard the rumor that the O'Learies (Catholic immigrants, prime targets
for suspicion already) had negligently allowed their cow to kick over a
lantern and then letting the fire go out of control. Other stories told of
sneaked smokes by youngsters and thieves starting the blaze while
attempting to steal milk. Ahern was about to write a story blaming
specifically Mrs. O'Leary as some "colorful copy" when he came upon an
even more exciting topic.
"This is a TL that deserves further exploration. "
- reader's commentsFires had started suddenly throughout the Great
Lakes region nearly simultaneously over the weekend. Peshtigo, WI, and
surrounding villages had undergone an enormous blaze that killed some
2,000 people and torched millions of acres. Urbana, IL, over one hundred
miles south of Chicago had also burned, as had Holland, Mansitee, and Port
Huron in Michigan. Even Windsor, Ontario, in Canada burned on the 12th.
News about the disasters trickled out slowly, but various cases of
eyewitnesses noted smokeless balls of blue fire falling from the sky.
After some consideration, Ahern wrote a shocking story that the origin of
the Chicago fire had come from the heavens.
Other tabloids picked up the notion, and the idea seared into the
Chicagoan public imagination. Scientific persons scoffed at a "rain of
meteors" since they would be cool to the touch by the time they landed,
but few listened to them. Instead, as Chicago underwent an incredible
reconstruction program, observatories and atmospheric study stations were
included. In 1882, a more serious proposal of the meteors was announced,
and now the scientific community listened. Some began to argue for the
mysterious "ball lightning", but the suggestion was now officially in the
journals. By the time of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, a great wealth
of knowledge was collected in the Meteor Hall, which afterward would be
donated to Northwestern University.
"HOTT in Cleveland"..would have a Historical
significance!!" - reader's commentsTwo decades later, Robert H.
Goddard, a sickly part-time instructor at Clark University began
soliciting funding for experiments with rockets. While the Smithsonian
offered a princely sum of $5000, Northwestern seized the chance and
offered funding as well as a position and student aides. Rockets, the
departments affiliated with the study of the cosmos thought, would allow
for first-hand exploration of outer space. With his arrival in Chicago,
Goddard began intensive plans for high-altitude meteorological instruments
and, eventually, designs for a possible, though impractically expensive,
orbital rocket. Arguments about propulsion in vacuum dominated much of the
rest of Goddard's career.
When the Nazis proved rocketry for military use was successful in the
Battle of Britain, the US Army and Navy hurried to update Goddard's
designs. While students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
worked on programmable trainers leading to computing, research at
Northwestern led to development of "The Eagle," or what a jealous Werner
von Braun would later call the "V-3". After the war, USSR would begin the
Space Race by launching Sputnik, but Americans would swiftly turn and beat
the Russians to the first man in orbit with Alan Shepard. Continual
challenges would put men on the Moon with the Apollo program in 1963 and a
short-term research station on Mars in 1974. The funding for exploratory
rocketry along with the Cold War. By that time, short-range space-travel
would prove profitable with hour-long sub-orbit intercontinental flights,
zero-g tourism, communication and observation satellites, and Solar Energy
says in reality Ahern wrote the story blaming Mrs. O'Leary for the fire.
In 1893, he would boastingly confess that he had made up the tale. Catherine
O'Leary would die in 1895 of pneumonia, though descendants would say
spending the rest of her life under public distrust caused her death from
broken heart. Robert Wood would reexamine the meteor theory in 2004,
claiming that it might have been methane released from the breakup of
Biela's Comet, which would give a brilliant meteoric display in 1872.
To view guest historian's comments on this post please visit the
Today in Alternate History web site.
Jeff Provine, Guest Historian of
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