Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Chicago Union Stockyards Fire on December 22, 1910.

On December 22-23, 1910, while battling a ferocious fire inside the Morris and Company meatpacking plant at the Chicago Union Stockyards on the 4300 block of South Loomis Street, was first reported on December 22 at 4:09 AM. 

Twentyone Chicago firefighters were crushed to death when a wall collapsed. Before September 11, 2001, the Stockyards tragedy was the deadliest building collapse involving firefighters in the nation's history.

When the fire broke out, it was uncontrollable from the start. It required so many firemen so quickly, and it couldn’t be put out.

Long before the 1910 fires were a common occurrence at the Union Stockyards. Inside these plants were flammables like grease and wood. All it took was a spark, or, in the case of the infamous Stockyards fire, a shorted electrical socket.

It was a cauldron ready to explode, and that’s what it did.
Nelson Morris Warehouse № 7, at the 4300 block of South Loomis Street.
Around 4:10 AM on the 22nd, firefighters arrived outside Warehouse № 7 of the Nelson Morris and Co. meatpacking plant and found black smoke billowing from a loading dock next to the building. The call proved difficult from the very beginning. There was only one way to battle the flames — stand on a loading dock which was covered by an old, wooden canopy and aim their hoses at the heart of the fire.
Firefighters battling the Morris & Co. fire in the Union Stockyards.
With a seven-story brick building on one side, and a line of railroad boxcars that butted up to the loading dock, the canopy above it formed a tunnel-like effect. Arriving engines were stretching hose lines down the railroad tracks and then under the boxcars in an effort to have a better vantage point.

At 5:05 AM, Chief Fire Marshal James Horan arrived on the scene. Horan ordered firefighters from two truck companies — № 11 and № 18 — to ax open the plant’s door. And he had two other men check the condition of the wooden canopy.

Smoke blinded the firefighters. Intense heat smothered them. They fought on. Before the building collapsed, there was little warning — just a “deep groan” from within the burning plant. The force of the collapse was so great, it not only crushed the canopy, but it knocked several of the boxcars clean off the tracks and onto their sides.
The collapse killed three civilians and 21 firefighters, including Chief Horan, whose personalized helmet is in the Chicago History Museum archives.

The blaze was extinguished at 6:37 AM on December 23rd. The disaster left 19 widows and orphaned 35 children, three days before Christmas.

Local news accounts at the time described the macabre scene in detail, including how the bodies of many of the dead were found buried in the rubble amid hog meat that had been stored in the building. It took 17 hours to pull all the bodies from the ruins.

Left in the wake of this tragedy, just days before Christmas were 19 widows and 35 orphaned children. Contributions raised for the families of the fallen firefighters grew to into a controversy pitting the widows against others led by Harlow Higinbotham who wanted to "manage" the $211,000 in funds for the grieving families rather than distribute the money directly to the widows, parents, and families.

It was said that Higinbotham had earlier kept some of the money intended for the widows and orphans of firemen killed in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair Cold Storage FireThis would not happen again because the widows' sued and their case ended up in court where the judge found in their favor, allowing the widows' to control the distribution of the funds.

The deceased were buried within a few days, some of the funerals were held on Christmas Day. 
On December 22, 2004, city officials dedicated the Chicago Stockyard Fire Memorial was erected just behind the Union Stock Yards Gate at the intersection of Exchange Avenue and Peoria Street. An 8-foot-tall bronze and aluminum sculpture and a “Wall of Honor” bearing the names of Chicago firefighters and paramedics who have died in the line of duty.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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