10 Lesser Known Disasters That Shaped Chicago

Chicago has a famous and extensive history of tragedies from both before and after its founding. While known as an amazing city with great culture and history, it undoubtedly has a dark past. The stigma of Mafia violence and corruption in the city government remain famous, but some of the darkest points in the city’s history have been often overlooked. Just about everyone knows about the Great Chicago Fire, or the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre that both often pop up in history books. Many of the other defining moments of the region have either been forgotten or overshadowed by other famous events. The Great Chicago Fire actually happened on the same day as the Peshtigo Fire just 250 miles to the north in Wisconsin. The Peshtigo Fire actually killed more than four times the amount of people as the Great Chicago Fire, yet it remains relatively unknown. This isn’t a complete list of events, but 10 parts of the Chicago’s relatively unknown tragedies I found interesting. Although morbid, many of the disasters led to new national regulations that have saved countless lives over the years.

10. S.S. Eastland Disaster

Arguably the most famous of the tragedies on this list, the S.S. Eastland disaster is still not very well-known outside of Chicago. On July 24th, 1915, the S.S. Eastland had been chartered along with four other ships to transport the employees and their families of the Western Electric Company to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. The Eastland, largest of the ships and first scheduled for departure, quickly reached it’s passenger limit of 2,500. While still docked along its mooring on the Chicago River, the ship slowly started listing towards its port side. Passengers took little notice as the crew tried to move them around to distribute the weight during loading. As the passengers began to move to the starboard rail, the port side was still listing dangerously low enough that water started to slosh onto the main deck through its scuppers, the drainage holes along the boat to drain any water that ended up on the deck. Despite the warning signs from the ship and another ship captain on the dock, Captain Harry Pedersen ordered the moorings released and to prepare for departure. Below in the engine room, the engineers were having trouble getting the ballasts to fill with water and right the ship. After a brief window in which no evacuation order was issued, the boat began to tip over. Within two minutes the ship slowly rolled over into the twenty-foot deep Chicago River. Of the more than 2,500 people on the ship, 844 died. It is still the greatest maritime disaster on the Chicago River and Great Lakes. 22 families were completely wiped out while stuck below decks, in stairwells, or not able to make it into the water. Many of the deceased were moved into the basements of local buildings serving as temporary morgues, including what would become Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios, leading to rumors of the buildings being haunted.

9. Our Lady of the Angels

On December 1st, 1958 a small fire started at the bottom of a stairwell in the Our Lady of the Angels grade school. The fire, thought to have started in trashcan in the basement, soon spread to the stairwell itself. Smoke started filling the second floor of the 1,600 student school. The school was built in 1910 and was exempt by a grandfather clause from recent fire regulation that required new schools have sprinkler systems, fire doors, and direct emergency lines to the fire department. Although the nuns teaching the classes saw the impending danger, many did not evacuate their classrooms. Rules were that a fire evacuation and ringing of the evacuation bell itself could only be ordered by the Mother Superior, who was not to be found. The Fire Department was not notified of the fire until 40 minutes after it had started due to this delay since the call had to be made outside of the school. One of the teachers finally rang the fire bell and started an evacuation of the building, however the wood and plaster that made up the building accelerated the spread of the fire, trapping students on the second floor. Many children either jumped to safety or were rescued by the fire department, however 92 children and 3 nuns, perished in the blaze. Within days, the tragedy led many cities to force schools to modernize their fire safety equipment and ended up being the driving force to set national regulation for fire prevention in schools. It remains the third deadliest fire in Chicago history.

8. American Airlines Flight 191

Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is one of the busiest in the world, and the day of May 25th, 1979 was no exception. American Airlines Flight 191, a DC-10 jumbo jet destined for Los Angeles, began its take-off from Runway 32-Right. As it took off, the No. 1 engine ripped free of the left-wing and caused the plane to begin pitching to the left. The tower radioed the plane asking which runway it would like to land on, as emergency training generally provided a way for the pilot to recover enough to land. The plane kept climbing despite the emergency procedures executed by the crew, since the lost engine had also torn away the hydraulics used for the cockpit controls. As the plane banked to the left with the change in aerodynamics from the lost engine, the nose dropped towards the ground. Flight 191 hit the ground and exploded into a fireball nearly a mile from the runway. All 271 souls on board were lost, and 2 people on the ground were killed as well. Investigation revealed no fault of the pilot and crew, terrorism, or weather incident. Maintenance crews in Tulsa, OK, had taken shortcuts in the engine removal and repair process that caused a tear between the engine pylon and wing. It finally failed completely as the plane took off from Chicago. DC-10’s were grounded and investigators found that other maintenance teams from other airlines had taken the same shortcut and caused the same structural tear that would have eventually led to other DC-10’s crashing in the same way. The FAA fined American Airlines for improper maintenance and grounded all DC-10’s until safety upgrades could be installed. It is still the deadliest civilian airliner accident in US history.

7. Fort Dearborn

Shortly after the start of the War of 1812, Fort Dearborn was a US Army outpost built in what would now be Chicago’s Loop. It existed on the edge of American expansion, with the closest US fort being in Fort Wayne, Indiana. As the War of 1812 started, the British and allied Native American forces captured Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Fort Dearborn’s commanding officer, Captain Nathan Heald, was ordered to evacuate the fort as his superiors felt that supplies to Fort Dearborn would be disrupted. A rescue group was dispatched from Ft. Wayne, composed of Miami warriors and Captain William Wells. Heald met with the local Potawatomi tribe, informing them of his intention to evacuate the fort, and asking for safe passage. He offered the fort’s surplus provisions as payment, including whiskey and weapons. Regardless, Heald ordered them be destroyed as to not fall within the hands of tribes allied with the British. One of the local Potawatomi Chiefs, Black Partridge, warned Heald of an impending attack by a faction of his tribe. The evacuation party of 93 people: soldiers, militiamen, women, children, and the 30 Miami warriors, began the trip to Fort Wayne. About a mile and a half south of the fort the party came into contact with 500 Potawatomi warriors waiting in ambush. Whether Heald betrayed the truce by destroying the whiskey and weapons leading to the attack, or if it was an attack of opportunity, remains debated. What is known, is that Heald ordered his forces to fire and charge the Native American forces. The fight lasted about 15 minutes, with Heald and half of his force, in addition to women and children, dead in addition to 15 Potawatomi. Survivors were killed or ransomed. Long known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre, recently some historians, Native groups, and the city itself now call it the Battle of Fort Dearborn due to the evidence that Heald may have broken the truce, also as it was part of the War of 1812.

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