10 Lesser Known Disasters That Shaped Chicago

6. 1968 Race Riots

The 1968 Democratic National Convention Riots in Chicago are famous for the breakdown of order among the police, and the ensuing police against protesters. However, another riot from before the convention in 1968 has been mostly forgotten by the city’s residents. The day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Chicago and several other major cities erupted into major rioting and chaos. Racial tension and the death of King caused a huge riot to start, primarily in the West Side. Businesses and buildings were destroyed as black citizens lashed out against the bigoted nature of the city government and frustration and grief over the death of King. Over 10,000 Chicago Police Department officers were called to work extended shifts, and thousands of Illinois National Guard and federal military troops entered the city. The riots led to over 11 deaths, 500 injured, and at least 2000 people arrested. The military troops sent to relieve the Chicago police officers were allowed to use tear gas to start breaking up the riots, however the most notorious moment came when Mayor Richard J. Daley gave order for police to use lethal force against suspected arsonists, and to shoot to maim anyone engaged in looting. The riots lasted two days and devastated the West Side, leaving at least 210 buildings damaged or destroyed. The riots ended up causing an exodus of local businesses from the West Side, leaving economic problems even today.

5. Chicago Crib Fire

Chicago relies on its network of water intake cribs placed over a mile offshore into Lake Michigan to supply the city and surrounding suburbs with water. The intake cribs are concrete islands that hook into tunnels that run to the water treatment plants on shore. In 1909, a temporary crib made of wood and stone erupted into flames while crews were building the tunnel back to the shore. The crib was temporary lodging for the workers while they built the tunnel. The fire engulfed the building in seconds, leading at least 70 deaths. Many were buried in a mass grave as the remains were burned beyond recognition. No official cause was found, but rumors spread that it was caused by a janitor that spread a mist of gasoline around to kill bedbugs. The situation may have been made considerably worse by the fact that the lake was partly frozen, leading to the theory that rescue ships could not get to the crib for some time.

4. Camp Douglas

When people think about the Civil War, Chicago is rarely among the places that come to mind. However, in 1861 a recruitment camp was set up to help meet the enlistment quotas required for each state by the Union. The camp was named Camp Douglas, after Stephen A. Douglas of the famed Lincoln-Douglas Debates. The camp sat on roughly 60 acres of land and was hastily constructed with nearly non-existent sanitation systems. In 1862 a portion of the camp was changed into a prisoner of war compound for captured Confederate soldiers. For the next three years the captured soldiers battled malnutrition, poorly insulated buildings, and the extremely unsanitary conditions that caused epidemics of small pox, measles, and pneumonia. An investigation by the US Sanitary Commission decried the horrible conditions in the camp, like lack of proper human waste areas, standing water, and overcrowding. Repeated requests by the camp garrison to improve living conditions were denied, in part because of the stories of harsh living conditions of Union POW’s in the South. A mass escape attempt was made by many of the prisoners with the help of Northern anti-war activists, but was foiled. By the end of the war when the camp was closed, 26,000 soldiers had been imprisoned there and at least 4,000 died.

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