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 http://www.firemuseumofgreaterchicago.org 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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!