July 10, 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Cold Storage Fire Should be the Origin of “Murphy’s Law”

July 10, 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Cold Storage Fire Should be the Origin of “Murphy’s Law”
The Deadly Chicago Cold Storage Fire, July 10, 1893

122 years ago today, Chicago experienced the largest loss of fire-fighters in the 19th Century and it happened on the grounds of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park.

The building known as the Cold Storage Building was not an exhibit building per se but was more of a vendor building where any exhibitor or concessionaire who needed to keep something refrigerated could store their wares.    While it wasn’t technically an exhibit, fairgoers could take a tour of the building and on the 5th floor there was actually an indoor ice skating rink!

The Hercules Iron Company's Cold Storage Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

The Hercules Iron Company’s Cold Storage Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

The building was owned and operated by the Hercules Iron Company of Aurora, IL and they also had the contract to supply not only refrigeration but also ice to the various vendors and restaurants.  When the building was first erected there was a 90 foot black smokestack running up and out of the center of the building.  Daniel Burnham, Chief of Construction was said to have been able to see this black smokestack from the Court of Honor of what was being called “The White City”.  Upon seeing this he simply said, “Do something about it”.

What happened next has to go down in history as one of the worst ideas in the history of bad ideas.  The Hercules Iron Company decided to make the building look more like the other buildings in The White City by covering the smokestack with a decorative wood enclosure painted white.

When assistant Fire Marshall Murphy looked at what had been done he simply said, “We are going to have a problem with this building”.  That statement, in my opinion, should have been the origin of the phrase “Murphy’s Law”.   Unfortunately that honor is attributed to an Air Force Captain named Murphy who was working on a project in the late 1940s.  I believe Chicago should take ownership as of 1893.

Fire Marshall Murphy

Fire Marshall Murphy

While there were a couple of small fires in the building, all stemming from the smokestack, a member of the Columbian Guard was always nearby to sound an alarm and the fires were put out rather quickly.  Unfortunately, there was public pressure at the time resulting from the belief that there were too many members of the Columbian Guard being paid (approximately 2,000) and many people thought that this number should be cut down.  Of course the guard at the cold storage building was one of the guards positions that was cut.

In the early afternoon of July 10, 1893 a fire started once again and the once again the fire crews of  the World’s Columbian Fire Department, Columbian Guard and Chicago Fire Department were called to the scene.

It appeared at first that the fire was under control as over 30,000 spectators gathered and started cheering for the fire crews.  An explosion of ammonia tanks interrupted the applause and the firemen who had scaled the tower were now trapped between a fire above and fire below.    Hoses and ropes were burning quickly the many were forced to jump over 100 feet onto the burning roof below.  While some had miraculously survived the final death toll came to 15.  Eight World’s Fair firefighters, four Chicago Firefighters and three civilians died that day which made it the largest loss of Chicago firefighters in a single fire up to that point in time.  Actually there is an unknown 16th victim who is buried under the monument at Oakwoods Cemetery and that individual had been more or less forgotten in time and is still unidentified.

Fire Marshall Murphy survived and was also credited with helping to try to save the life of Captain James Fitzpatrick who had jumped and initially survived only to die of his injuries later.

The stress of the cold storage fire and the legal aftermath took a toll on Marshall Murphy and he eventually was unable to return to duty and was placed in a Sanitarium due to what we now have labeled Post Traumatic Stress.

You can visit the monument to the victims at Oakwoods Cemetery in Chicago.  The following are the names of the fallen (without reference to the 16th unidentified victim)

Captain James Fitzpatrick, Chicago Fire Department

Ralph Drummond, Superintendent Harter Electric Company

William H. Denning, World’s Fair Fire Department

Lt. John H. Freeman, World’s Fair Fire Department

John C. McBride, World’s Fair Fire Department

Louis J. Frank, World’s Fair Fire Department

Lt. Charles W. Purvis, Chicago Fire Department

Paul W. Shroeder, World’s Fair Fire Department

John A. Smith, World’s Fair Fire Department

Captain James A. Garvey, Chicago Fire Department

Norman M. Hartman, Electric Lineman

John Cahill, World’s Fair Fire Department

Phillip J. Breen, World’s Fair Fire Department

Bernard Murphy, Boilermaker

Captain Burton E. Page, Chicago Fire Department

The Memorial to those lost in the Cold Storage Fire at Oakwoods Cemetery

The Memorial to those lost in the Cold Storage Fire at Oakwoods Cemetery


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