Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

Late one night when we were all in bed
Old Mrs. Leary left a lantern in the shed
And when the cow kicked it over
She winked her eye and said
There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight

Dear Readers,

Few words struck terror in the hearts of 19th city dwellers as did the word "fire." In an era when cities were made of wood a single spark could wreak havoc on an entire neighborhood or, in the case of Chicago, an entire city. The summer of 1871 was hot and dry. The city of Chicago had only received one inch of rain between July 4th and October 9th turning the city into a tender box. This kept the 200 or so men of the Chicago Fire Department with their 17 fancy horse drawn steam engines busy. Very busy. They ran from alarm to alarm knowing full well that if a fire got out of hand it could turn into a disaster.

Around 9pm on the night of October 8th, someone reported a fire in a barn behind 137 DeKoven Street. The Fire Department responded quickly but in a strange twist of fate, the fire was reported to be in a different location and so they initially showed up at the wrong place. This slight delay of a few minutes allowed the fire to take hold. By they time they corrected their error, the barn was fully involved and the fire was spreading.

137 DeKoven Street. The scene of the "crime".

Freakishly strong winds were pushing the fire to the southwest, towards the city's business district. The fire began to take on a life of its own. You see, fire is a living thing, just like we are. It requires oxygen and fuel (food) in order to survive. As the fire grew bigger, so too did its appetite. The winds blowing across the fire grew hot enough to ignite dry wood (similar to Santa Anna winds in California). The fire jumped the Chicago River and raced through the business district. Panic set in. People loaded up their possessions onto carts and tried to escape. The fire itself took on a tornado like appearance. Something you your normally see with massive wildfires out west or cities that were firebombed during World War Two. Around 2:30 in the morning, the bell atop the city courthouse collapsed. Witnesses heard the crash from miles away. The city lost its water supply when the building which housed the city waterworks burned. They were now powerless to help; 

The fire continued to burn well into the evening of October 9th. By the time Mother Nature showed mercy on the battered firemen of Chicago and allowed some rain to fall, the fire had more or less burned itself out though there were still some hot pockets that needed watching through October the 10th. The scope of the damage defies attempts to describe it. 2,000 acres burned. 100,000 people left homeless (1/3rd of the city's pre-fire population). The path of destruction was said to be four miles long and 3/4s of a mile wide but estimates vary a little.

Intersection of Dearborn and Monroe

So what started the fire? In the 19th Century, when in doubt, blame an Irish person. Mrs. O'Leary who lived in the home on DeKoven Street became almost an urban legend. It was widely believed that her cow kicked over a lantern in the shed and that started the fire. As a former arson investigator with an excellent track record of successful cases, I call bullshit on that theory. So what did cause the fire? No one can agree. It could have been burning embers from someone's chimney landing in her shed given the wind conditions that night. Some witnesses reported seeing men gambling in her shed by lantern light early that evening. Yet no real move was made to track them down. Also, we cannot forget Peg Leg Sullivan. He was present that night and placed himself, via his testimony, at the scene of the fire. He claims to have walked the length of half a football field, into a burning barn, tried to put out the fire and tried to rescue animals and then walked out of the barn and back to where he started from in the space of just a few minutes. Without receiving a scratch or appearing out of breath. I also call bullshit on his story. Peg Leg Sullivan, you are lucky I wasn't alive back then. We'd have gotten to know each other really well in the interrogation room.

Mrs. O'Leary's house was spared as the winds pushed the fire away from it. Her home was still standing into the 1950s when the city of Chicago purchased it and tore it down. In its place they built..........wait for it..........the Chicago Fire Academy! I love a city that would do something like that. (Unlike Houston that bulldozes anything older than 30 years for no good reason.) Of course, the incident is also preserved in the name of Chicago's Major League Soccer team, the Chicago Fire. They have one of the better MLS names. Much better than Real Salt Lake. 

So just a reminder, Dear Readers, be careful where you toss your cigarette butts and burning coals from your barbecue pits lest you be the cause of the next urban conflagration. Also, beware of people gambling in your garage and shady characters with wooden legs who hang around you yard for no reason. Don't say I didn't warn you.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who was a damn good arson cop even though I never investigated an urban conflagration of this magnitude.