Friday, February 21, 2020

The Burlington Office Building Fire, Chicago. (1922)

At approximately 12:50 AM on Wednesday, March 15, 1922, the Chicago Fire Department received an alarm from Box 276, which was located at West Van Buren and South Canal Streets. The fire had been reported by a postal clerk who noticed flames starting to burn through the roof of the building at 517 West Jackson Boulevard.

The fire actually started in the Austin Building on Canal Street and quickly spread to a number of adjacent buildings, including the Canal Street 'L' Station.
The massive fire destroyed the entire city block bordered by Jackson Boulevard, Van Buren, Canal, and Clinton Streets.
Likely based upon this information, the Chicago Fire Department immediately reinforced the initial responding firefighters by dispatching an additional three engine companies, a hook and ladder, two Fire Insurance Patrol units, two Battalion Chiefs, and one First Assistant Fire Marshal to the scene. The First Assistant Fire Marshal noted that by the time that the initial units arrived, the fire had already started spreading to adjacent buildings, suggesting that the fire had burned unnoticed for a considerable amount of time before the fire department responded.
Throughout the early morning of March 15th, the fire continued to spread to adjacent buildings. In all, 13 buildings would be involved in the fire, the tallest of which was the 15-story office building owned by the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Company. 

Firefighters attempted to get water to the upper floors of the Burlington office building but were hampered by the fact that the department did not have a high-pressure water system that could deliver water to upper floors of taller buildings. Firefighters were greatly assisted by the valiant efforts of elevator operators in the building who risked their lives to move men and equipment to the upper floors during the fire. Around 2:30 AM, the fire was largely under control, but units continued to be called out to the scene until close to 5 o'clock in the morning. 

Chicago Chief Fire Marshal Thomas O’Connor stated in the midst of the fire that it was the worst in Chicago’s history since the Great Fire of 1871. The report of the Chicago Board of Underwriters on the fire noted many factors that contributed to the size of the conflagration, including floors that were oil-soaked and filled with combustible materials, narrow spaces between buildings that allowed the fire to easily spread, and sprinkler systems with too many sprinkler-heads that discharged the inadequate water supply too quickly.
The fire still smolders.
In total, 80% of the Chicago Fire Department responded to the fire, including 51 engine companies, 6 hook and ladder companies, 7 squad companies, 2 fireboats, and many high ranking Chicago Fire Department officers. Additionally, four Chicago Fire Insurance Patrol units took part in the efforts and the sole fatality at the fire was one of these Insurance Patrol firefighters. Firefighter James J. McGovern of Fire Insurance Patrol 1 was struck by a piece of stone masonry that fell from the Burlington Building on his head, fracturing his skull, causing his death shortly thereafter.

The fire destroyed the following buildings:
517-523 W. Jackson Boulevard. A two-story and basement joisted brick building with multiple tenants. This building had exposed unprotected openings on all sides.

525-531 W. Jackson Boulevard. A one and two-story and basement joisted brick building with multiple tenants. Unprotected openings on all sides.

541-553 W. Jackson Boulevard. Fifteen-story, roof house, basement and sub-basement, fire-resistive building, occupied by C. B. & Q. Railroad Co. as offices, with bank tenant on the ground floor. 

309-315 S. Clinton Street. A seven-story and basement joisted brick building. This building, together with 317-319 S. Clinton Street, 306-312 S. Canal Street, and 314-318 S. Canal Street formed the group known as the Austin Building. The occupancy of this group consisted principally of wood and metal workers, printers, electrotypers, and machine shops. The building had a sprinkler system. The sprinkler system was wet except in part of the basement. It was supplied by a 21,300-gallon gravity tank with a 17-foot head, and 3,400 gallons in pressure tank on No. 306-12; 1,590 gallons in pressure tank on the 6th floor of No. 309-15; 2,800 gallons in pressure tank on the roof of No. 317-19; four single steamer connections. The equipment was graded 5/10 of standard. 

317-319 S. Clinton Street. A one-story and basement and seven-story and basement semi-mill building. Exposed on three sides. Communicated to No. 309-315 through unprotected openings in the basement and non-automatic iron doors above. 

306-312 S. Canal Street. An eight-story, basement, and subbasement, semi-mill building. Exposed on all sides.

314-318 S. Canal Street. An eight-story, basement, and subbasement, semi-mill building. This building communicated with 306-312 through common elevator shafts with single non-automatic iron doors, and basement, fifth and eighth through double non-automatic iron doors. 

300-304 S. Canal Street. An eight-story, basement, and subbasement, semi-mill building, sprinklers, with multiple tenants. This was known as the Atlantic Building. It was exposed on north and east, had wired glass windows on the south, and unprotected openings on west above the sixth floor and blank wall below. The sprinkler system was wet, supplied by 20,300 gallons in a gravity tank with a 22-foot head; 3,000 gallons in each of two pressure tanks and two steamer connections. The equipment was graded 9/10 of standard.

324 S. Canal Street. The elevated 'L' station, platform and structure.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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