Glorious Record of Chicago Fire Department.

Glorious Record of Chicago Fire Department.

A little more than three-quarters of a century ago the city council of Chicago, after much sage deliberation and careful planning, resolved to adopt an innovation that was to be epochal in the history of the city by the lake. Glimpsing dimly a great future for their town and ambitious to be abreast of time, they resolved that Chicago should have an organized and efficient fire department The beginning was humble enough—as all beginnings are. The art of fire fighting then was not the complicated science it is to-day. Given a number of buckets, a few able-bodied men and a tower from which an alarm bell could be suspended, any community was in possession of a fire department theoretically adequate to any emergency. But even these simple expedients had up to that time been woefully lacking in Chicago. So the city fathers of 1833 laid the foundation for one of the largest and most efficient fire fighting forces in the world by adopting an ordinance providing that—

“Any nroperty owner who stuck a stovepipe through the roof or wall of his house or houses should be subject to a fine, and that any ablebodied citizen who failed to provide himself with a bucket and respond to a fire alarm should be subject to a fine of $2.”


The town was also divided into four fire wards, of which the following pioneers, having full charge of their respective districts in case ol fire, were appointed wardens : W. Worthing ton, E. E. Hunter, Samuel Rcsigue and James Kenzie. But from this humble beginning the fire department of Chicago has developed into one of the most magnificent bodies of its kind in the world. While its history spans only a few years, it covers not only a rapid development, but also exceptional experiences. There are memories of hard-fought battles and hairbreadth escapes from death; of gallant rescues through lire and smoke; of devotion and sacrifices, daring and chivalry that have been equaled seldom if ever in all tinhistory of fire fighting. Its history extending back from the days of pails and buckets, the Chicago department stands to-day in the foremost rank of the world’s army of fire-fighting men. From its ranks have sprung heroes, whose deeds of valor and noble self-sacrifice are worthy a place beside those upon the roll of fame in any land at any time. Its origin was the result of a necessity felt in what at the time was a small prairie village after its first recorded fire, in October, 1834, in which four buildings at the corner of LaSalle and Lake Streets were destroyed. Prior to that there had been an organization on paper called the Washington Volunteers, but it never got beyond the initial stage. In 1833 the first fire ordinance was passed by the council, and the first steps to organize a fire department were taken Oct. 7, 1835, when papers were started for volunteers, and on Dec. 17 of the same year a company named the Pioneer Hook and ladder Company No. 1 was fully organized. It consisted of the following: P. K. W Peck, 1. M. Cord, John R. Livingston, Thomas S. Hyde, Joseph L. Hanson. J. K Wilson. Henry E. Hublard, E. C. Brackett, Silas B. Cobb, John Holbrook. Thomas I. King. T. Jenkins, J. A. Smith. T. F. Spaulding. N. F. I. Monroe, Isaac Cook. J. I . Botsford. J. J. Garland, George W. Merrill, George Smith, Joseph Meeker. J. K. Palmer. Samuel S Lathrop, Thomas S. Ellis. .Another company formed the following December was called the Fire Kings This was the first engine company formed in Chicago. The first members were: W. H. Clark, W. H. Snow, A. Gilbert, John Calhoun, J. M. Morrison, C. Beers, Alvin Calhoun. Peter C Updike. J. C Waters. William Jones. Hiram Hugunin, president of the board, was chief and William Jones and Peter Updike first and second assistants respectively. A second company was formed in 1837 and was called the I radesmen. and an engine was purchased in Rochester for $776. Alexander Lloyd was chief engineer and Isaac Cook his first assistant. In 1839 Calvin Calhoun succeeded Mr. Lloyd as chief engineer. No great necessity seems to have required the services of the three companies up to this time, but on Oct. 27, 1840—a month singularly important in the history of the Chicago department—occurred the first important fire.


Starting at the corner of Lake and Dearborn streets, it destroyed the Tremont Hotel and seventeen other buildings, with a loss of about $00,000. In 1840 Luther Nichols succeeded Calvin Calhoun as head of the department, and the liflowing year a company was formed for the preservation of property during a fire. This organization was named the Chicago Bag and Fire Company, but was generally known as the Forty I hieves. Their equipment was a bag, a short shovel and wrench. A. S. Sherman became head of the fire department in 1841, and a new company called the Neptune Bucket Company was organized Sept. 7 of the same year, with E. S. Sherman as foreman. This company was the first to have uniforms, which consisted of a red jacket, belt and a white helmet. The equipment consisted of 160 buckets and a carriage. It numbered twenty-five men and was admitted to the department the October following its organization. It was afterward disbanded, and went largely to the formation of a new company called the Red Jackets, which became famous for many years as the best company in the West. The third engine company organized was the Osceola, but later renamed the Niagaras, of which C. F. Foster was foreman. It was organized Nov. 21, 1844. Its members being among the prominent families of the North Side, it was called the Kid Glove Company. The rivalry between this and other bodies naturally was keen, and only “old-time members” of the volunteer force can fully appreciate the strife for supremacy upon all occasions. The famous Red jacket Company was organized in 1846 and was largely made up of the disbanded Neptune Company A. S. Sherman was succeeded by Stephen F. Gale in 1844 The social features of the fire organization in the early days were a great attraction to the young men. Almost every branch of business was represented in its membership, and the department was used as a means to good fellow ship. The attractions and amusements were numerous, and suppers, dances, parades and prize contests made membership an introduction to society, and it was a coveted position to belong to one or other of the organizations. Desire to he the crack company called forth the keenest rivalry, and to be first at a fire was a victory to talk about for days and weeks and an incentive to keep the members on the alert. The first stroke of the fire bell was a signal to drop everything and start on a run for the engine house, and ofttimes. so eager were they to get on the wav. half a dozen or so would seize the rope and pull the engine on a run for the scene of the fire, the other members jumping on en route. It was a spectacular sight to see sixty or seventy men racing with the engine rattling behind to the music of its clanging hell and the shouts of the men The engine had to get there, wheels or no wheels. Fights sometimes resulted, in which swollen heads and fractured noses were the principal after decorations. One of the most serious of these took place at a fire on Twelfth street, when the Red Jackets not only whipped the Fire Kings, but dumped the latter’s engine into the ditch. Visits to neighboring cities were gala days. One such occurred in 1852, when under Chief U. P. Harris the Red Jackets went to New York. The reputation of Chicago’s fire department at that time was merely local and the New Yorkers thought that for a “country company” to come to their town and seek to pluck their metropolitan laurels was a presumption which must he backed up with marvelous achievement. Great preparations were made and City Hall Park was packed with thousands of eager spectators who struggled to get a glimpse of the Westerners with their “prairie schooner.” In the center of the park was a lofty pole surmounted with the statute of Justice. The New York engines took their turn in setting a high water mark as an object lesson to the invaders. Finally the RedJackets swung into position and quickly laid their hose, with the nozzle pointing to the sky. Chief Harris stepped in front of Chicago’s pride and gave a rousing speech, warning his men that if they failed he would never recognize them as Chicagoans. A moment of silence ensued, and then Charles Moore raised his trumpet and gave the word “Play away!” Eighty Red Jackets, forty to a brake, commenced to move with a precision and a quickening stroke that swelled the hose and started the stream to spurt from the nozzle in bounding leaps toward the pole. Cnee more the trumpet called “Down on her! Down on her! Red Jackets!” and like the crack of a whip to the back of a mettled horse the men gripped the handle bars, and more swiftly swung the lines of red and the spray had already reached the level of the others. Then came the supreme moment, when Chief Harris grasped the trumpet and shouted above the din of cheers: “Work for your lives, you Red Jacket sons of Chicago!” Down went the brakes with a rapidity that only desperation could equal. Up sprang the fierce!” driven stream till it sprinkled the feet of Justice and with a bound had cleared the scales, where never stream had reached before. Shout upon shout rent the air and firemen and multitude rushed in and captured the Red Jackets and their engine and carried them captive to their quarters in triumph.


The fire signal in the days of the volunteer department was sounded from the church bell. Its strident tones called the volunteers from shop and store and any occupation where they were employed. The clanging of the engine bell as it bounded along the uneven streets behind the racing, shouting men roused the sleeping people along the route, who, with heads protruding, added to the general chorus. The still alarm was an invention of later days. In 1845 the Rough and Ready Company was formed, and in October ot the same year the Firemen’s Benevolent Association was organized, with E. S. Gale as president. Hope Hose Company was organized in 1848 and was one of the crack companies of the West. Discipline was maintained with rigor and infringements brought quick punishment or expulsion. Each member took a special pride in maintaining the reputation of the company. A subscription was taken up to procure a new hose cart, and the finest that had been turned out to that date was bought in Philadelphia. Its mounting was silver and it was always kept in perfect condition. It was brought out only on display occasions and in cases of absolute necessity, when the old cart was out of gear. The company was a prize winner at the tournaments and running contests. Its record was a run of 500 yards, and the laying of .100 feet of hose in one minute and seven seconds, wich was surpassed by only one other. It 1840 the legislature passed an act exempting firemen from road or street tax, Protector Company No. 6 was organized that year, with Ashley Gilbert as chief.


In 1854, under Chief Harris, engine Company No. 9 was organized and called the New England. afterward the American, being disbanded in 1865. Next year Washington Company No. 10 was added to the force, and also nook and ladder Lafayette, No. 4. A change was made in the signal bell that year, it being transferred from the First Baptist Church to the courthouse. A watchman was also stationed in the tower with a Hag for day and a lantern at night to signal the direction of the fire. Wide Awake Company No. 12, and Torrent, No. 13, were organized in 1856, and in the following year Red Rover Company No. 14; Lady Washington Hose No. 5, and Liberty hose and Empire hook and ladder No. 3, were added. The last of the volunteer firemen’s contests took place in Chicago, and a prize of a $200 trumpet was offered by the Cook County Agricultural Society to the company sending a stream of water farthest through a 500-foot hose. The contest was won by engine No. 7, which sent a stream over 200 feet. Three days later, on Oct. 15, the most disastrous fire theretofore experienced in Chicago occurred. Starting in a brick building at 109 and 111 South Water Street, a property loss of over $500,000 resulted and twenty-three lives were lost. The following firemen were among them: John B. Dickey, foreman of hose No. 6; Timothy Buckley, hook and ladder No. 1; August Wolf, hook and ladder No. 3, and Marcus D. Grant, hose No. 5, many others having narrow escapes. The investigation into the cause of the fire revealed that it was caused by the overturning of a lamp in a carousal. This disaster led to the organization of a fire brigade by E. E. Ellsworth, which consisted of 100 men with police pow-ers, but it had a short existence. The introduction of a rowdy element into some of the companies brought them under public censure, and the mayor was given power to disband the offending companies, which resulted in a general weeding out of the undesirable element. The coming of D. J. Sweenie as chief in 1858, marked a new epoch in the history of the fire department by the purchase of the first steam fire engine. A committee was sent to Cincinnati to procure it. On a trial, however, held in Chicago, in which several of the hand engines were pitted against the stranger, it was so badly beaten that it was condemned and sold to St. Louis. Another was then purchased and accepted, and in honor of the mayor, through whose influence it was obtained, it was called the Long John. The purchase of this engine was the beginning of the end of the volunteer firemen in Chicago. The advent of the steamer was viewed with anything but friendly feeling by the volunteers, who felt that the old associations which had been the source of so much pride and pleasure were soon to pass. The good old days were soon to give place to the modern march of things. So strong was this sentiment that engine companies Nos. 4, 10 and 14, hose Nos. 3 and 5 and hook and ladder No. 3 met on Clark Street, and, after parading through the principal streets, formed in Courthouse Square. Excitement ran high, and the mayor, fearing a riot, ordered out a strong body of police with orders to arrest the firemen, upon which the latter scattered, leaving their machines, of which the city at once took possession and locked up, and the organization was disbanded by the council March 22, 1858, and on the 4th of August following an ordinance was adopted organizing a paid department. The last of the Volunteer companies was disbanded in 1862.


October had been a memorable month in the history of the department, but another even was coming that tried to the utmost the courage and endurance of the members, an event which was to bring their city to the brink of ruin, a trial beyond the power of human ability to overcome, a record among the list of fire disasters of the world. An overturned lamp had caused the fire of October, 1857, the most disastrous in the history of the city. So, too, an overturned lamp on the 8th of October, 1871, started a blaze whose effects were felt around the world. A woman’s scream on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871. was the first intimation of danger. A neighbor ran to ascertain the cause, and, being quickly joined by others, attempted to extinguish what appeared to be an insignificant blaze in a cow barn. The conditions, however, were unfavorable. The extremely combustible materials, a high wind and an error in giving the proper signal to the fire department permitted the flames to gain headway. Within two and a half minutes after the signal Little Grant Fire Company, under Captain Mushatn, was on the scene, and threw the first stream on what was to be one of the historic fires in the history of fire fighting. The day before there had been a severe fire that taxed the endurance of a number of the companies, but at the sound of the alarm they sprang at once to the call of duty to face the most trying ordeal that had ever tested the courage and endurance of the men. The fire department at this time consisted of seventeen engines, fiftyfour hose carts, four hook and ladders, one fire escape and 48.000 feet of hose, with men and horses. All night the fire raged, sweeping back the firemen, who, step by step, fought stubbornly for every foot of ground, surrounded by fire, heat and smoke, with the air filled with falling sparks and firebrands, sleepless, hungry and parched with thirst, every man a hero. At last a cry for help was sent over the wires, and companies from seven States, sent as fast as cleared tracks and flying trains could carry them, were soon standing side by side with their brave comrades of the stricken city. But it was too late. The waterworks had fallen, and the city was at the mercy of relentless flames. Marshal Williams and his men were beaten at last, beaten for the first time in the history of the department, beaten only when no human power could save. From the organization of the paid department in 1863 to the great fire the loss by flames had been $13,729,848, upon which an insurance had been paid of $10,851,948. The greatest loss in any one year was in 1867-1868, when there were 515 fires and a loss of $4,215,332, covered by an insurance of $3,417,288. The magnitude of the Chicago disaster is better realized when compared with the three other greatest fires on record. Rome burned by order of Nero B. C. 64. The streets were narrow and the houses of wood. The fire lasted for nine days and nights. Great numbers perished and it has always stood as one of the greatest calamities of history. London in 1666 was devastated by a fire which left 200,000 people homeless and destroyed 13,000 buildings, one of which was St. Paul’s Cathedral, the most ancient in the Christian world. Moscow, with a population of 300,000, was burned in 1815 by the retreating Russians upon the advance of the army of Napoleon. Four-fifths of the city was laid in ruins. The loss by this fire was estimated at $150,000,000. Eleven thousand eight hundred houses were burned, and 15,000 wounded Russians were left to perish in the flames. The Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed seventy-three miles of streets, 17,450 buildings; estimated loss $200,000,000 and a loss of 200 lives, leaving homeless 100,000 citizens. One redeeming feature of the Chicago fire was the growing feeling throughout the world of a common humanity. From other nations came words of sympathy and large sums of money and other necessities, which with spontaneous contributions from all over the United States went far to relieve the distress and suffering which otherwise would have resulted. Marshal Williams was succeeded by Mat Brenner in 1873. D. J. Swenie was appointed in 1879, William H. Mushatn in 1884, John Campion in 1904, James Horan in 1906, and Charles F. Seyerlich in 1910. The growth of the city and the development of the fire department have kept an even pace. During the half century of the paid department the seventeen steamers have increased to 126 steam fire engines, seventeen chemical engines, forty-three hook and ladder companies, six fire tugs for river service, three combined hose and chemical wagons, portable pumps, extinguishers, etc.


The equipment comprises 733 horses, 296,976 feet of hose, 23,339 hydrants, 2.230 miles of water mains and 117 cisterns and 1,917 alarm boxes. The force consists of 1,837 men, of whom 1,759 are uniformed; one marshal, three assistant marshals, one inspector, eighteen battalion chiefs, one superintendent of machinery, 153 captains, 156 lieutenants, 123 engineers, 111 assistant en gineers, 1,163 pipemen, truckmen and drivers, ten pilots, seventeen stokers, two car drivers and seventy-eight ununiformed men. For fourteen years the average number of fires was about 6,000 per year, with an average property valuation of $120,000,000, while the loss was less than 3 per cent of the whole amount endangered. An evidence of the prompt response and skill displayed in handling the department is seen in the report ot the marshal, which shows that out of the 6,189 fires in 1906, 5,411 were confined to the floor or place of origin.

_ An illustration of the scope of the present fire department’s work is the report of the marshal for 1909. which shows that 10,310 alarms were answered, of which 7,414 were actual fires, with a property valuation of $138,780,618, and a loss of only $3,946,792, or about 2 2-3 per cent. As an evidence of the danger the men face, one might refer to a recent civil service test in which 104 lieutenants took the examination for the position of captain, every man of whom revealed scars resulting from accidents received during service it the department.

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