Today’s Blazing Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
In the spring of 1934, during second season of the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair, Chicago was suffering from an extreme drought. Nowhere was the danger of a major fire more apparent than in the Union Stockyards on Chicago’s south side. From a fire protection standpoint, the stockyards were a nightmare. Since it opened in 1865, the mile-square complex, with its wooden livestock pens, slaughterhouses, meatpacking plants, hay sheds, chemical laboratories, and railroad facilities had seen plenty of deadly fire. The worst was the December 22, 1910, Nelson-Morris fire that killed 21 firefighters and three workers. The conditions of early 1934 would help the stockyards and Packingtown make fire history again, and not since the Great Fire of 1871 would Chicago firefighters be faced with the formidable task of saving their city from a major conflagration.
By Saturday, May 15, 1934, rain had not fallen in weeks. The wooden livestock pens and hay sheds in the stockyards were bone dry, making an already dangerous fire hazard even worse. Just about everything in the stockyards was made of wood. Thousands of feet of lumber had been used to build the pens, sheds, and storage shanties as well as the miles of enclosed double-deck runways used to route the animals to the killing floors. Although several permanent buildings had been built of fire resistant materials, none was sprinklered, including the large Stockyards Exchange Building, where all business and futures trading occurred. To help minimize the hazards, two fire companies were stationed there, Engines 53 and 59, while several others were located in nearby neighborhoods. Nevertheless, access and mobility inside the vast complex was severely limited by the elaborate maze of narrow wooden runways, alleys, and gates, making the positioning of fire apparatus difficult. Fire hydrants were spread great distances apart, and the water mains servicing the area were too small to supply an adequate flow necessary to fight a large and sustained fire. These factors would play a significant role in the blaze that was about to erupt.
Because it was a weekend, the slaughterhouses sat idle and empty save for a few watchmen and livestock workers. At 4:21 in the afternoon, a security guard saw flames and smoke coming from the cattle and sheep pens near 43rd and Morgan. Fanned by a 15-mph wind, the fire spread quickly, mainly in a northeasterly direction. The guard ran to his shanty and pulled a private A.D.T. fire alarm that was immediately routed to the fire department, and a box alarm assignment of four engines, two hook-and-ladders, a squad, a high-pressure rig, three chiefs, and several other units was then dispatched.
Engines 53 and 59 arrived in minutes, but already 300 square feet of pens were on fire, as well as the 43rd Street viaduct and the adjacent elevated chutes and cattle runs. After hooking up to a private fire hydrant, the two companies went to work on Texas Avenue, a narrow lane inside the pens near the fire’s origin. Cowboys and cattle workers tried driving animals away from immediate danger, but the fire was jumping 50 to 100 feet at a time and sparking additional flames ahead. Water from the hoses turned to steam, and the fire surrounded the men, forcing them to drop their hoselines and flee for their lives. One cowboy was not so lucky. Along with several head of cattle, he became trapped and was cremated. The fire also destroyed all of the fire hose and both fire engines that had been abandoned.
Five minutes after the first call, Fourth Division Marshall John Costello sounded a 4-11 alarm from a city firebox in the stockyards, summoning 15 more engines, three hook-and-ladders, two water towers, two rescue companies, and two high-pressure rigs. Even with help on the way, the firefighters retreated two blocks further and attempted to set up a fire line near Engine 59’s firehouse at Dexter and Exchange Avenues, half of a mile from where the fire started. But driven by strong winds the fire “rushed at us with a scream and a roar as though especially bent on our total destruction, Chief Costello later recalled. “We dropped everything and ran, just barely getting away.” Everything in the fire’s path was destroyed, including hundreds of head of livestock, thousands of feet of frame runway pens, and a huge supply of dry hay. Where cowboys couldn’t drive animals to safety, police moved in and mercifully shot numerous cattle unable to escape.
Within minutes the firebox used to transmit the 4-11 alarm was destroyed. With ammonia tanks exploding in burning meatpacking houses, fire officers sent a 5-11 alarm at 4:35 p.m. before abanding Engine 59’s building, which lay directly in the fire’s path. It was quickly destroyed along with all of the equipment inside. Conditions grew steadily worse as the hot wind spurred strong gales that blew up to 60 mph. The blaze was now a firestorm leaping from building to building, principally in a northeasterly direction.
Special calls went out summoning fire companies from all over Chicago. Suburban fire departments also sent equipment to cover empty city firehouses. As more equipment arrived, firefighters attempted another stand east of the fire, but this position also had to be abandoned. The huge wall of flame continued to raze frame and brick buildings, including sheds and small warehouses loaded with combustibles, several two story brick horse barns, and the three-story South Exchange Building. As the fire spread further east, it took over the nine-story main Exchange Building, where one of the most dramatic rescues in Chicago history occurred.
At 5:15 p.m., firefighters saw four men on the roof of the Exchange Building waving for help. Sensing that the workers were ready to jump, the firemen positioned Hook-and-Ladder 4 next to the building structure and raised the rig’s 85-foot aerial ladder. The ladder, however, fell short of the roof, reaching only within three feet of an eighth-floor window.
Time was running out, and with heat and smoke pouring from all windows of the doomed building, Lieutenant Thomas Morrissey and three firefighters, John Tebbens, Joseph Reszal, and Robert Quinn (later to become Chicago’s fire commissioner), raced up the wooden aerial carrying rope and a pompier ladder. Morrissey entered an eight-floor window and hooked the pompier ladder to the edge of the roof, enabling the other three firefighters to climb the remaining distance and grab the trapped workers. Firefighters below held a life net as engine men shot a protective stream of water toward the tenuous perch above. After bringing the workers down, the firefighters had to retreat further east to keep ahead of the main fire.
The U.S. Post Office sent 15 trucks to retrieve mail from the stockyards postal station before fire destroyed the building. Hundreds of families had to abandon their homes, while underground tanks of neighborhood gas stations were emptied of fuel and trucked away. Armored cars took away cash from the Drovers Exchange National Bank; however, money was left at the Livestock National Bank, because its vaults were considered fire resistant. Police cordoned off a three-square mile area, the largest fire line in Chicago since the Great Fire of 1871, from 31st Street south to 55th Street and from Wentworth Avenue west to Ashland Avenue. By 5:30 p.m., the fire had swept the entire eastern portion of the yards, from Racine Avenue east to Halsted Street and from 41st Street south to 47th Street. Inside the affected area, residents helped firemen couple hoses together and push cars out of the way. Heat from the fire peeled paint off many of the vehicles. At 6 p.m. many buildings that lay in the fire’s path were dynamited. The fourteenth special call was sounded at 6:32 p.m., and at the direction of Chief Fire Marshal Michael Corrigan, a third and final stand was mounted along Halsted Street between 40th and 43rd Streets in the form of a semi-circle, which proved effective. Water supplying the fire line now came from city mains outside the stockyards, a source far superior to the diminished flow of the private hydrants inside the yards. Deploying high caliber turret streams fixed to squad trucks, high-pressure wagons, and water towers, the firefighters finally blocked the fire’s advance, but not before a string of brick and frame commercial structures along Halsted Street had been incinerated, including two banks, a bowling alley, several restaurants, and a drug store, as well as most of the building in the Exchange-Halsted corridor.
As dusk arrived, the wind shifted south and the fire began losing momentum. After backtracking and burning several more building it had initially passed over, the fire ran out of fuel. The winds subsided, and by 11 p.m. the fire was deemed under control.
Damage was incredible, and even before the smoke had cleared, people began referring to the stockyards fire as the second great Chicago fire. Dozens of buildings and more than 50 acres of livestock pens had been lost. Eight square city blocks were destroyed with total property losses exceeding $6 million. About 150 families were left homeless. The interior and contents of the Stock Yards Inn and the Breeding Building were demolished, the structures themselves severely damaged. Also lost was the 150,000-square foot Stock Pavilion. (The pavilion was quickly rebuilt and renamed the International Amphitheater. In 1999, the famed building, probably best known for hosting the ill-fated 1968 Democratic Convention, was razed.)
Miraculously only one person was killed, the cattle worker who had died in the early stages. About 800 to 1,000 head of livestock were lost. The 1933 grand champion bull, Highland Stamp, was rescued along with eight prize cows and two other bulls taken from the Stock Pavilion by the arena’s caretaker and a 12-year-old neighborhood boy who corralled the animals in a playground just beyond the fire area. Fifty-four firefighters had been injured, and another 26 became sick after drinking contaminated water from cattle troughs. The cause of the fire was never determined.
Morbid Sightseeing: Florence Pathology Museum
I’ve added another location on the bucket list, this one in Florence, Italy. Have a look at Atlas Obscura and Morbid Anatomy’s pages to see what I mean!