TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Great Chicago Fire Question

Great Chicago Fire Question

Kay Olson (
Tue, 28 Dec 2004 09:39:25 -0600

Pat Townsend,

I read your article, Telecom Disaster Recovery in 1871, on the web. I
am writing a children's book on the Great Chicago Fire and I have a
question. Do you know any details of the fire alarm system in place in
Chicago in 1871? I know that the wrong alarm box was pulled, which
sent fire fighters in the wrong direction. (I believe Mathias Schaffer
signaled his assistant to strike Box 342, which was a mistake. The
correct box was Box 319. Then later, the assistant, William J. Brown,
took it upon himself to turn in a second alarm. Unfortunately, he
struck Box 342 for a second time.

My question is, what was the arrangement of these boxes -- how far
apart were they? I would like to have a clearer idea of how easy (or
difficult) it might have been to get the boxes confused. Any help you
could provide in finding the answer to this question would be most

Thanks for any reply you care to send.

Kay M. Olson
Editorial Director
Capstone Press

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: The alarm boxes were a block or two
apart, but I know nothing about their numbering arrangments, etc. I
do know that they had hopes the fire could be confined to the west
side of Chicago, but a strong wind caused some burning embers to do
what was considered unthinkable at the time: Some chunks of burning
wood flew through the air *across the river* and landed in the
middle of the Gas Works, on a gasometer, which was a huge, old-
fashioned control mechanism which pumped gas through the pipelines
of the city. The 'relatively harmless' (although nasty) fire which
had begun at 8:30 PM that Sunday night quickly expanded with that
horrendous explosion at the People's gas works on West 12th Street
about 11:45 PM same night. By midnight, or as soon as all the gas in
the pipelines had drained out, the gas lamps all over the city had
gone dark.

Chicago Mayor William Mason and the members of the Common Council
(what today is known as the Chicago City Council) at that point
decided it was time to declare a state of emergency and martial law.
Mayor Mason and the councilmen rode their horses over to the telegraph
office (which was the basis of my original article) and sent off
'wires' to the president advising him, and also to General Sheridan
asking him to please bring his troops ASAP, to maintain order and
prevent looting, etc.

The firemen kept right on fighting the fire in the various locations
as best they could until early Monday morning when even worse
circumstances occurred: The fire once again jumped over the river
(that is, flying embers and burning wood flying through the air) and
landed -- in the most unfortunate of places -- on the water works
building, setting it on fire, and before long, it was out of order as
well. Water pumping and pressure in the pipes in those days was rather
sophisticated for their time; water from the river was diverted
through a stream nearby, through a waterwheel, which in turn operated
the hydrolic mechanism which pumped water through the pipes to
residences, to the firemen's hydrants and similar. Most of the water
works did not burn down, but the pumping mechanism was totally shot
as a result, and the trickle of water still running made the fire
fighting effort in vain (and the pumps had been working overtime for
several hours anyway at that point due to the fire.) What remains of
the old water works still stands today as a monument in Chicago.

The fire continued to burn all day Monday and until early Tuesday
when a very heavy rain storm burned out what was still burning at
Fullerton Avenue on the north side. About 30 years after the fire,
in 1901, the Chicago Historical Society commissioned a book of
rememberances, saying as a preface, 'as more and more old people
die off, soon there will be no one left at all who was present at
the fire. This book will serve to tell everyone about that event.'
The same year, the Chicago Tribune, in its Sunday magazine also
printed an interview with an employee of Western Union who had been
on duty in the telegraph office that Sunday night.

When I was employed by the Chicago Public Library in the visually
handicapped radio reading service, I used that book 'Remberances of
the Great Fire' as a 13 week series in the programs I produced.
Unfortunatly I no longer have my copy of the book and do not recall
any mention (of the several rememberances used) of how the alarm
system worked. Maybe some other reader here will know, or you might
be able to read it at the Historical Society Museum/Reading Room. PAT]

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