Sunday, July 5, 2020

The 1894 Fire in Rogers Park Community of Chicago.

We should all be familiar with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that burned from Sunday, October 8, 1871, to early Tuesday, October 10, 1871, killing nearly 300 people and destroying about four square miles of Chicago. Almost unknown is the "Saturday Night Fire" that struck downtown Chicago ten blocks north of the great fire, the night before on October 7, 1871, leveling four-city blocks.

HOW PHILLIP ROGERS' LAND FORMED THE BASIS OF ROGERS PARK
On April 29, 1878, Rogers Park was incorporated as a village of Illinois governed by six trustees. At one time West Ridge was adjoined with neighboring Rogers Park, but it seceded to become its own village in 1890 over a conflict concerning park districts (known as the Cabbage War) and taxes. The Village of Rogers Park was annexed to Chicago on April 4, 1893, along with the Village of West Ridge, each becoming one of Chicago's 77 communities today.
The Birch Forest extended from about Birchwood Avenue south to Touhy Avenue, about 1/2 mile, and west to just west of where Sheridan Road is today, in the Rogers Park community of Chicago, ca.1900.
By the turn of the 20th century, a lot of Rogers Park lakefront was still Birch and Oak Forests which, not surprisingly, gave its name to Birchwood Avenue. The subdivision of Birchwood Beach extended from Birchwood Avenue south to Touhy Avenue, about 1/2 mile, and west to the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad tracks (today's CTA Red Line) in the Rogers Park community of Chicago. The Birchwood Country Club, a nine-hole golf club was short-lived from 1906-1913 and was limited to 100 individual members living in the Birchwood Beach area.

THE GREAT ROGERS PARK FIRE
On Wednesday, August 8, 1894, one-city block of Rogers Park bounded by Clark Street, Market Street (Ravenswood Avenue), Greenleaf Avenue, and Jackson Avenue (Estes Avenue) went up in flames. Clean up and rebuilding took several years.
Shaded area shows burnt district at Rogers Park.
By a fire that broke out in that part of the city known as Rogers Park at 9:30 a.m. yesterday (Wednesday, August 8) an entire block was wiped out, including stores, factories, and dwellings, fourteen in all, while ten families were driven out homeless. The loss of property was $34,550, but during the excitement, many persons narrowly escaped injury, while five were hurt.

The scene of the fire was but a few hundred feet northeast of the Chicago & North Western Railway depot (now Metra) and in the principal business portion of the former village. The burned territory is bounded by Clark Street, Greenleaf Avenue, Jackson Avenue, and Market Street, along which the Chicago & North Western Railway has its right-of-way. At the southwest corner of the block at Greenleaf Avenue and Market Street was the Planing Mill of George Gerner & Sons, composed of one- and two-story Frame Buildings, occupying 100 feet of ground each way. The fire started either on top or within the Boiler Room of the mill, the generally accepted theory being that it was set by sparks from a passing engine on the North Western tracks.

Only a block away, on the east side of Clark Street and Jackson Avenue, stands the old Rogers Park Village Hall, the pride of all citizens there, which is now the headquarters of Precinct 44 of the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Fire Department Truck Company № 25, with two men under the command of Lieutenant Healy. The two pieces of horse-drawn apparatus there consist of a truck, hose wagon, and chemical combined and is of the general variety used in country towns. The alarm at the Gerner factory was immediately sent in for this piece of apparatus, but it is reported that it was fully 20 minutes before the scene of the fire was reached, and, of course, the big mill, dry as tinder, like everything else in the neighborhood was doomed. Moreover, the fire was reaching after three frame cottages standing north of the mill, and for Burbank’s Drug Store, a two-story frame building standing east of the mill and facing Clark Street.

The firemen attached their lines to the hydrants, but the streams issued from them would barely reach a foot from the nozzle. Rogers Park, though annexed to Chicago for nearly a year, has been without city water all that time, and compelled to depend on a private waterworks, which were pumping under about ten pounds pressure when yesterday’s fire broke out. Calls for assistance were quickly sent out by Lieutenant George W. Perry to the Evanston and city departments. Hose companies from Evanston were earliest to respond, but by the time of their arrival, all of the buildings save one in the doomed block had been destroyed, and the fire was endeavoring to grasp the City Hall across Clark Street, as well as a long row of frame buildings containing the Rogers Park Library, several stores, and the houses of many families. The City Hall was set on fire several times, but the Evanston firemen managed to avert the danger, while several young men from the same classic town by hard work prevented one building from going down on the burning block.

After the flames had almost destroyed everything on the block, Fire Marshal Frederick J. Gabriel of the 13th Battalion arrived, followed by the Engine Companies № 70, № 55 from 685 Sheffield Avenue, № 56 from Noble Street and Clybourn Avenue, № 53 from Clybourn and Southport Avenues, and Hose Company № 4 from Clark Street and Belmont Avenue, and № 6 from Balmoral and Ashland Avenues. Some of the companies had driven six miles at full pace, with the thermometer at 95° F in the shade, and men and horses were alike worn out. But the former went to work with a will in a dire emergency. Every building on the block save one had gone down, and the fire had extended to the east side of Clark Street, where the two-story building occupied by W.P. Foote’s grocery store and home and the office of Expressman Anthony Cook had taken fire. Captain A. William Lawson and Lieutenant Quinlan with their men pushed into the building to stay the start the fire had taken for the destruction of another block. While at work Lawson and Quinlan were overcome by the heat and fell into a mass of burning debris on the second floor, whence they were rescued after heroic efforts, both being painfully burned. The building was gutted. Marshal Gabriel and Lieutenant Perry had by this time succeeded in getting the manager of the private waterworks to put on a greater pressure, and after a hot fight at Clark Street and Greenleaf Avenue, the flames were barred from further progress.

At 10:00 a.m. the wires of the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee Railroad Company and the Chicago Telephone Company were burned or cut down to avert danger, and there was no telephonic or electric car communication between the city, the northern suburbs, and Evanston until late last evening.

Police Officer John Weldon was the hero of the fire. He is from Summerdale Station. After the Burbank store and residence on the corner of Greenleaf Avenue and Clark Street had been encircled by the fire he rushed up the stairway leading to rooms above. Mrs. Gurney, the mother-in-law of Dr. Lowell, was there with Mrs. Burbank, both women frantic from fear. Mrs. Burbank hurried down the stairway, her clothing taking fire in her progress. She was seized by bystanders, who extinguished the flames on her gown, and she escaped with a few slight burns. In the meantime, Officer Weldon held Mrs. Gurney at a window, from which smoke was issuing freely, and was calling for a ladder. He knew the attempt down the stairway was fraught with danger. Finally, a ladder was placed against the window and the officer carried Mrs. Gurney to the ground where both fell unconscious from the smoke they had inhaled. Officer Weldon was also burned on one side of the face. Other praiseworthy work was done by Lieutenant George W. Perry and the twenty-two men of his command, in the way of saving threatened property and one of their deeds was of particular daring. On the railroad track, less than fifty feet from the blazing mill stood a tank car loaded with oil and wedged in between the other cars on either end of it. There was great danger of an explosion of the oil, which would have added horror to the fire disaster. Lieutenant Perry called all his men together and with desperate strength, they removed the cars from one end of the tank car, which had become heated to a dangerous point, and then they shoved the oil car to a safe distance.

The three cottages north of the planing mill on Market Street, now Ravenswood Avenue went down in a hurry before the flames. Nicholas Stuer and his wife, living in a part of the first cottage, lost everything, while Louis Petrie saved only a pair of trousers. Nicholas Michaels, living in the next cottage, saved part of his effects, while James Michaels, in the third cottage, saved all his furniture. The last building on Market Street, a large livery stable operated by J.P. Goodwin, was quickly destroyed, with a number of sleighs and a quantity of feed. He succeeded in saving his horses, carriages, and hearse.

Fronting on Clark Street, besides the Burbank Building, were a double two-story frame building occupied by John Hinds’ Bakery and John Weas’ Shoe Store, a brick building occupied by Sharp Brothers’ dry goods store, and a brick residence annex, and the frame residence and Butcher Shop of John Lindley. The undertaking establishment of Peter Weimeschkirch, which also constituted the Rogers Park Morgue, was but partially destroyed, the undertaker finding time to save most of his stock. His residence was saved.

George Gerner, in whose planning mill the fire originated, thinks with proper protection the fire should have been extinguished in a few minutes with but little loss.

Serious complaints were made against the private waterworks and the newly-annexed people think the city should take charge of the water supply. Harvey Eugene Keeler is the Superintendent of the works, which are said to have been originally built by the National Tube Company and later delivered to a stock company. The works stand at Touhy Avenue and Sheridan Road and are substantial and well equipped. Citizens complain that besides not being protected in cases of fire the water company charges exorbitant rates.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Source, Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society.
Source, Chicago Tribune.

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