The Columbus Statue and The Cold Storage Building Fire, July 10, 1893 (Article 1 in a series)

The Columbus Statue and The Cold Storage Building Fire, July 10, 1893 (Article 1 in a series)
Columbus Statue from the Cold Storage Building of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

Series:  Remnants of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago 


The third star on Chicago’s City Flag represents the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition which was held in Chicago from May 1, 1893 through October 30, 1893.  When the flag was first designed by Wallace Rice (original member of the infamous Chicago Whitechapel Club) in 1915 and adopted in 1917 the flag only had two stars (one for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and one for the Columbian Exposition of 1893)  The stars for Fort Dearborn and The 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago were added later which pushed the Columbian Exposition to position three.

The Columbian Exposition has fascinated me for as long as I can remember and has been taking center stage again with the success of Erik Larson’s, “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.”  It is almost inconceivable that a mere 20 years after the city was devastated in the fire of 1871, Chicago was chosen over New York City to host such a spectacular global event.

I always thought it would be a great project to dig up what is actually left of the great Expo and then let people know where they can go to experience it.  Admittedly I had no idea how much would be left but was amazed by the amount of artifacts that still survive.  That is why this is going to be the first in a series of articles dedicated to this topic.

This first article led me to an amazing organization known as the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago which operates out of the former home of Engine Co. 123 at 5218 S. Western Avenue in Chicago.

Many Chicagoans are unaware that the second greatest loss of life in the Chicago Fire Department’s history took place on July 10, 1893 on the exposition grounds while an estimated 30,000 attendees gazed in horror.   The greatest loss of life occurred during the Stockyards Fire of 1949 when 22 members of the C.F.D. lost their lives.

The Cold Storage Building , which was owned and operated by the Hercules Iron Works Company out of Aurora, IL, was located just east of Stony Island Avenue and just south of 64th St.  It would have existed roughly where the Jackson Park administrative offices exist today.  Fire Marshall Murphy had stated before the disaster that the Fire Department was going to have a problem with the building.  The building was not technically a “Fair” Building but was more of a concession that was utilized for cold storage by the exhibitors as well as providing ice for exhibitors and patrons alike.  It was 6 stories high with an ice skating rink on the top floor and three 120 ton “Hercules” ice making machines which visitors could see in operation. The building was 150’ x 255’ and had an observation tower on each corner of the building and a large smokestack running up the middle of the building which was 191 feet tall.  A wooden enclosure surrounded the smoke stack and gradually narrowed as it reached the top.  The first 50 feet above the roof was very plain looking but as it narrowed it included ornate columns which supported platforms and ended a mere 10 feet from the stack while supporting a wooden cupola which was flush with the top of the stack. That much wood dangerously close to a 191 foot smokestack was a disaster waiting to happen and on the afternoon of Monday, July 10, 1893 it did!  (full details of the fire will be covered in a forthcoming article)

The fire started in the cupola and did not look like much.  Twenty firefighters made their way first to the main roof and then via cleats hammered into the structure climbed up to the first platform which was 70 feet above the roof.  As the firemen were lowering ropes in an attempt to pull hoses up to the platform they were unaware that inside the stucture hidden embers were falling from above them inside the stack enclosure and started the roof on fire below them.  They were now trapped between the fire above and the fire below with no ladders for escape.  As the fire raged, the firemen had to choose between being roasted alive or jumping 70 feet to the flaming roof below and within a few short minutes the crowd watched in horror as the men embraced each other for a last time and one by one made the deadly leap.  Sixteen souls did not survive the fire.  They consisted of four regular Chicago City Firemen, eight Columbian Fire Department members, three civilians and one, as of today, unidentified and unclaimed victim.

A twelve foot hollow copper statue of Christopher Columbus stood in the east entrance of the Cold Storage Building and was the only artifact to survive the fire.  In fact, the firefighters had roped the statue and pulled and tethered it to one side so that they could more easily move the fire apparatus through the entrance.  Ironically it was the tethering that helps the statue survive the collapse of the entrance way.  William Henry Mullins of Mullins Mfg. Co. from Salem, Ohio was the owner of the statue and contacted the city with his offer of dedicating it to the memory of the victims of the fire.  Mullins was quoted in a July 19, 1893 Chicago Tribune article as saying the he “will give and dedicate it as a monument to the memory of the brave fellows who lost their lives in the terrible disaster.  The statue would, I think, make as appropriate a monument to the memory of these brave men as could be devised.  It stood there with them in the building in which they lost their lives.”

The city originally planned on having the statue mounted on a granite base overlooking the graves of some of the unidentified victims of the fire at Oakwoods Cemetery.  This idea was scrapped due to the fact that the copper statue violated the rules of the cemetery regarding using perishable materials in the construction of monuments.

Instead, after the close of the exposition, the relic of the fair was presented to Chief Joseph Kenyon of the 12th Battalion of the Chicago Fire Department.  The statue was erected in front of Engine Co.51’s house at 6345 S. Wentworth more than likely because it was Battalion Headquarters and Chief Kenyon was himself a veteran of the “Cold Storage Fire”.

I spoke with Jack Connors, Secretary of the Fire Museum, and he explained that Engine 51 and Truck 30 combined at 60th and State Street and the statue moved with them. The men of Engine Co. 51 cared for the statue repairing it and repainting it as needed.  In 1919 the statue was vandalized and the original crystal globe in Columbus’s left hand was stolen and replaced by a metal globe with a cross affixed to the top.   After Engine 51 ceased to exist the statue was moved to the C.F.D. Repair Shops at 31st and Sacramento where it stayed in storage for nearly 40 years.  It made a brief reappearance at city hall in October of 1993 and then was relocated to the 911 dispatch center on Madison Street.  The Fire Museum took possession of the statue in October 2001 and has displayed it proudly ever since.

Shortly after the fire monies were collected for a memorial to the fallen at Oakwoods cemetery.  Unfortunately there was some controversy over the accounting of the money and it was somehow lost.  Members of the Chicago Fire Department pitched in and on June 1, 1897 a granite memorial bearing the names of the fallen was erected in Section D, Division 4, Lot 16 near the Chapel at Oakwoods Cemetery.  In attendance were 120 uniformed members of the C.F.D., Chief D.J. Swenie, Marshals Pazen, Campion, Petrie and Kenyon and Fire Inspector Conway.  The Rev. Bernard P. Murray of St. Bernard’s Church delivered the invocation and Harlow N. Higinbotham, President of the World’s Columbian Exposition, delivered the dedicatory address.

The names of the fallen are as follows:

Captain James Fitzpatrick, C.F.D.

Captain James A. Garvey, C.F.D.

Captain Burton E. Page, C.F.D.

Lieutenant Charles W. Purves, C.F.D.

William H. Denning, Columbian Fire Department

Lieutenant John H. Freeman, Columbian Fire Department

Phillip J. Breen, Columbian Fire Department

Paul W. Schroeder, Columbian Fire Department

Louis J. Frank, Columbian Fire Department

John A. Smith, Columbian Fire Department

John C. McBride, Columbian Fire Department

John Cahill, Columbian Fire Department

Norman M. Hartman, Electric Light Lineman

Ralph H. Drummond, Supt. Harter Electric Company

Bernard Murphy, Boilermaker

Only seven bodies are actually buried at the memorial. Six of them are the bodies of Garvey, Hartman, Page, Cahill, Breen and Murphy whose remains were indistinguishable from each other and therefore buried together in a plot paid for by the City of Chicago.  The other nine individuals were buried at various other Chicago and out of town cemeteries which leaves one unidentified and unclaimed body buried at the Oakwoods memorial.  (I will be posting a follow-up article on the mystery of the seventh body at Oakwoods)

My experience at the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago was a amazing one and I wanted to thank those that I had spoken with, Jack Connors, Father John McNalis and Frank McMenamin and the many other officers and volunteers for their dedication to the history of Chicago area firefighting service and for becoming the most recent custodians of the Cold Storage Building Columbus Statue.  The museum is operating on a shoestring budget and I was told that they only have room to display a small portion of the artifacts and records in their custody.  They are hoping to raise enough money to be able to increase the public hours of the museum.   If you would like to become a member you can visit their website at   Their next open house will be on Saturday May 26, 2012 from 10am to 2pm at 5218 S. Western Ave in Chicago and admission is free.  You can also email them at

Below is a slideshow of photos from Oakwoods Cemetery and the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago

Stay tuned for many more articles on the remnants of the Columbian Exposition of 1893!


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  • Very interesting article. I had heard of this, but did not know the details. Also, have driven past the Museum many times and wasn't quite sure what was in there. Thanks!

  • In reply to Richard Davis:

    Thanks Rich! You really should check out the museum if you get a chance. Their next open house is May 26th from 10am to 2pm and there is no charge!

  • Great post. Looking forward to reading more and more from you.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:


  • I too am a Columbian Expo enthusiast and posted this waymark of the statue some time ago:

    Interestingly it also looks similar to this statue in Peoria:

    Also posted one for the memorial in Oak Woods:

    Good article, thanks. Alan

  • In reply to adgorn:

    Hey Alan! Thanks for the kind words and that statue in your link does look strikingly similar. I know there used to be a statue of Columbus that was on Michigan Ave that was a gift from Italy but the people in Chicago thought it was so ugly that they melted it down and it became William McKinley in McKinley Park in the Brighton Park neighborhood. There is also a statue of Columbus in Columbus Plaza at Arrigo Park on Loomis that was from the Italian Building at the Exposition.

  • You can see a picture of the ill-fated Columbus statue here:
    prior to being melted down. I don't think it was from Italy but was built by a local sculptor name Howard Kretschmar. It was panned from the moment it was unveiled.

    FYI After the fair, the Arrigio Park statue was installed on the old Columbus Memorial Building at the SE corner of State & Washington, torn down in '58. That you can see here:

    There were actually 3 other Columbus statues at the fair, all gone now. You can see these in the various pictures of the fair grounds.

    Finally of course Columbus resides in Grant Park today as well as at 92nd & Exchange.

    I really got into this subject a few years back when I tripped on's Columbus statue pages and tried to help him straighten out his listings for Chicago, hence all this detail.

  • In reply to adgorn:

    Thanks so much for the additional info and photos Al. We have to compare notes on the Exposition some time!

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    I'm so happy to have come across this. I'm doing research about this fire for a novel. Does anyone know where at the Cold Storage Building this statue was? Have you any photos showing the statue in its original position?

  • In reply to Dana Reynolds:

    Dana, I am so glad that the article has helped you. I have done much research on the fire itself and will email you about the details. The statue was in the middle of the entryway of the building with a statue of a sphinx on both sides. I don't have a photo but I have a copy of an artists rendition that was in the newspaper that I can email you. Thanks for your kind words on the article.

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