10 Lesser Known Disasters That Shaped Chicago

3. Chicago Race Riots of 1919

On a hot day in the Midwest, Eugene Williams, a black teenager, was stoned to death and drowned by a group of white men in Lake Michigan. He was attacked only because he was on the “white side” of the unofficially segregated beach. Chicago police refused to arrest the men who murdered him, and ended up igniting the built up tensions between the races in the city. The week long riot saw white and black groups battling for control of different areas of the city, and the destruction of more than 1,000 black homes. The tensions building had been the result of several factors. White veterans of World War I returned to Chicago to find that many of the jobs they were expecting to get were filled by black men who moved north during the war. The newspapers also constantly inflamed passions, as they would over-report, exaggerate, and make up stories about black on white violence. Over the course of a week, nearly 40 people were killed, and roughly 500 injured as the mobs clashed. The mayor called in the National Guard on the 4th day of the riots, but the conflict still continued for another three days. Investigations into the riot concluded that the white mob had instigated the rioting, and that much of the destruction blamed on the black mob was actually committed by white rioters. The unrest was so devastating it led President Woodrow Wilson to begin a push for new racial equality laws, as he blamed the white mobs for the riots that had happened in Chicago and another major riot in Washington D.C.

2. 1910 Union Stockyards Fire

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle introduced the world to Chicago’s Union Stockyards and slaughterhouses. Hundreds of meatpacking buildings occupied the Union Stockyards, but one building in particular would go down in infamy. During the early morning hours of December 22, 1910, in the basement of the Nelson & Morris Company Warehouse No. 7, a defective electrical socket began sparking. The basement was filled with butchered hogs covered in a flammable preservative, flammable rags, and its walls were covered with animal fat and grease. The fire spread, quickly climbing the six-story building. Multiple Chicago firehouses responded to the fire, however several factors were working against them in their efforts. The water hydrants had been shut off to prevent freezing in the winter, and it took precious time to switch them back on. The building itself was windowless, requiring the firefighters to try to douse the fire while under the enclosed loading dock attached to the building. The dock backed up to railroad tracks and several box cars, greatly limiting the movement of the men. About an hour after the fire started, the pressure from the heat of the flames became so great that the building exploded. The wall that was attached to the loading dock came crashing down, destroying the structure and killing 24 men, including 21 firefighters. It took another full day to get the fire under control, which at this point had spread to a neighboring building. The building collapse remained the largest loss of firefighters from a single event in the United States until the September 11th attacks.

1. The Iroquois Theater Fire

Recovering from the destruction of the Great Chicago Fire, an emphasis was placed on new buildings featuring fire-proofing features. The Iroquois Theater opened in November of 1903 and had been declared fire-proof by the fire inspector during the building’s initial inspection. What the editor of Firehouse magazine, William Clendenin, found on an unofficial visit infuriated him. No sprinkler systems had been installed, combustible material littered the stage area, and many of the exits were obstructed. His warnings went unheeded. On December 30th, the play “Mr. Bluebeard” was playing. Although the theater was only approved for the capacity of 1,724 customers, roughly 2000 jammed into the theater. The extra people had to resort to standing or sitting in the aisles. During the performance, a faulty light brushed against the highly flammable cloth backgrounds suspended above the stage. The fire quickly spread, raining down burning pieces of backdrop onto the performers. As the performers fled the stage and out a back stage door, the extra oxygen caused the fire to explode onto other parts of the back stage. The fire-resistant asbestos curtain that was suspended above the stage had not been tested and subsequently jammed when the stage hands tried to release it allowing the fire to easily spread to the audience area. Patrons panicked and ran for the 30 different exit doors. People were crushed as 27 of the 30 doors had been locked to prevent sneak ins, were held closed by a small unnoticed latch, or simply only opened inward. As smoke-filled the theater, patrons tried to escape by climbing above the dead bodies in front of them, only to succumb to smoke inhalation and the flames. When the fire was put out, 575 people lay dead in the theater. 30 more people died later from their injuries. The fire was the second deadliest in the country, and deadliest in Chicago. However, like many of the items on this list, the disaster led to federal regulations for sprinkler systems, unlocked and lit emergency exits, and outward-opening-only doors.

So while Chicago has had its share of disasters, many led to increased regulations that have prevented countless other deaths in the United States. It’s important to remember those who lost their lives in the accidents that have allowed others to live.

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