Chicago Fire – Illinois – December 30, 1903

The theater that was claimed to be fireproof went up in flames shortly after its first opening. Of the 1,900 people in attendance six hundred lost their lives.

Chicago’s deadliest fire of the twentieth century occurred shortly after the opening of the new, fireproof, Iroquois Theater. On December 30, 1903, when the Iroquois Theater was packed for a holiday matinee of the popular musical ”Mr. Blue Beard, Jr.,” a fire suddenly broke out. The management was quite unprepared for the panic that ensued. Out of the 1,900 people in attendance, mostly women and children, six hundred lost their lives. The United States had a long history of fires, and this was not the only twentieth century urban fire, but it was a particularly tragic event. The new fire precautions had been well established and were well known. Several theaters had already implemented them.

Sadly, at the Iroquois, there was indifference to two extremely important safety procedures: ways of getting people out of the building quickly and stationing firemen close to the stage with fire extinguishers and hoses ready for use. Neither of these procedures was in place on December 30. There were firemen on duty in the theater at the time of the fire but the only firefighting equipment they had was a quantity of powder to sprinkle on a fire. The powder proved to be quite useless. When a velvet curtain ignited at the stage, an asbestos backup curtain, standard equipment in all theaters of that time, failed to drop down and contain the fire. Someone had raised the curtain higher than its usual position in order to provide a better view of the stage for those on the balcony. It got stuck in the higher position.

Additionally, there were no ushers at the exits to guide people out and avoid panic. Iron gates had been installed over exit doors and some of these were locked. Those that were unlocked were difficult to open because of a lever that was unfamiliar to most patrons. The result was a combination of panic and pileup at the exits. A large number of casualties, perhaps the majority of the six hundred, were people and children who had been trampled to death at the doors or were killed when they jumped down from the balcony. The speed with which everything happened added to the rush and confusion. Canvas backdrops on stage, painted with highly inflammable oil paints and mounted in the air, had caught fire instantly and created a firestorm. It was all over in fifteen minutes.

The Cook County Coroner’s Inquest documented the tragic sequence of events and came down hard on the theater’s management. It listed 571 deaths and hundreds of people injured. Thirty of these latter died in the weeks that followed. The fact that the casualties were mostly women and children, and that it happened so near to Christmas, made it all the more poignant and blameworthy. It was Chicago’s worst tragedy since the fire of 1871. Out of the tragedy came new, stronger regulations for theaters. New laws about fire safety were passed. Among them was the requirement that all exits had to be clearly marked and their doors so arranged that they could be pushed open from the inside. The largely undamaged Iroquois building reopened less than a year after the fire and ran on for a further twenty years.

Both before this fire and after it there were other urban fires across America. Wood was still the dominant building material in use for homes, for piers, and even for walkways in some of the newer communities. The New Jersey shore of the Hudson River was a busy shipping center at the start of the twentieth century. There were many wooden piers at which ships tied up while awaiting the loading of their cargoes. On Saturday afternoon, in June 1900, stacks of baled cotton and about a hundred barrels of whiskey were stacked on one New Jersey pier when a fire broke out in one of the cotton bales. Cargoes of flammable materials lay around waiting to be put on board. Fire immediately erupted.

Dozens of kegs of whiskey were ignited and these exploded and added fuel to the fire. The cause of the fire was not known; it could have been smoldering for some days before bursting into flame. In spite of efforts to limit the spread of the fire things got out of hand within an hour. Several ships and numerous smaller vessels caught fire as most of the crews from ships were ashore and large numbers of visitors were visiting the ships. There were also many canal boats and barges loaded with oil, coal, cotton, and gasoline, all highly inflammable materials which were being transferred to the ships. These added fuel to the already raging fires, helping to spread the flames to neighboring piers. All the ingredients for a devastating fire were at hand.

The piers were old, already saturated with oil from previous shipments. Cargoes of flammable materials lay around waiting to be put on board. Tied up at a pier, on the New Jersey side of New York harbor, were four ships of 5,000–10,000 tons in size. A 14,000-ton liner, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, held the Blue Riband, the much-coveted Atlantic-crossing record. This ship was the pride of the German marine fleet. It was built in 1897, carried a crew of five hundred men, and had an average speed of 20 mph. It was the first ship built with four stacks and the first to be fitted with remote-controlled watertight doors. It was also the first ship to carry a radio. In 1900 it carried a radio that had a range of twenty-five miles.

The Kaiser Wilhelm plied the Atlantic sea lanes for years after the Hoboken fire then, at the outbreak of World War I, it was converted into an armed merchant vessel but was sunk within a month of the war’s outbreak. A red and yellow plume shot skyward as flames spread from place to place and longshoremen soon realized that the wooden piers under them were catching fire They shouted a warning to others and ran for their lives. Forty men who did not move fast enough were incinerated. Trapped on the ships, some on deck and others below the level of the deck, were hundreds of visitors. Many of the casualties were people who were unable to get away in time.

The nearest horse-drawn fire-fighting carriage arrived within six minutes and the men on it fought the fire all evening and through the night until they finally got it out by the morning. The Kaiser Wilhelm had hundreds of sightseers on deck and many of them panicked when flames engulfed her bow. Tugs rushed to the rescue from both sides of the harbor and pushed the big ship into mid-stream. The stern also caught fire but the crew was well organized and fought every outbreak persistently, even using their uniforms to smother the smaller fires. No lives were lost. It was a very different story on the other ships. All of them were completely on fire and the tugs attempting to pull them away from the pier caught fire too and had to give up.

The damage to the three ships was extensive and they had to stay in port for some time for repairs. Since the piers in this area of Hoboken were under the care of the North German Lloyd Steamship Company, owners of the Kaiser Wilhelm and the other three ships, the company had to make arrangements for the burial of those who died. For most of them it was almost impossible to establish any identity. The tools that are at our disposal today were not available at that time. A mass burial was arranged at the Flower Hills Cemetery nearby and the shipping company, to its credit, looked after the maintenance and repair of this burial site for the whole of the twentieth century.

Lack of attention to fire regulations and inexperience in dealing with new hazards were also evident in ships at sea. One of the favorite trips of the 1930s was a pleasure cruise from New York to Havana. Cuba was a very different place at that time than it is today. Costs were low compared with their equivalents in the United States and large numbers of New Yorkers made the short two-way trip to the capital, Havana. The Morrow Castle was one of the ships that plied regularly between these two places and, in September of 1934, it was returning to New York when a small fire broke out in the writing room in the middle of the night. Instead of notifying the captain, three sailors decided to put out the fire on their own.

When they found that the fire was spreading and they were unable to control it they sent an urgent message to the captain who should have been on the bridge because the ship was quite close to New York at this the time. What they did not know was that the captain had had a heart attack and died a few hours earlier. His chief officer, in accordance with standing regulations, had immediately taken command but he was quite inexperienced and did not know what to do about the fire. A second message went to the bridge but again there was no response.

Within an hour the fire was out of control and the new captain sent out an SOS message. Chaos followed. A few managed to get away in lifeboats. Out of the total of 550 on board, one hundred thirty-five either drowned or were incinerated. All of these fires occurred in places of entertainment and commerce. It was a very different story in a fire that broke out in New York in 1911, in a place where new immigrants to America had just secured their first jobs, where pay was at a minimum level, and where working conditions were poor. These new immigrants fitted the traditional description, “tired and poor,” and probably spent their last nickel to get to America. The garment industry in Lower Manhattan gave many of them their first job in the new world, a job that required little prior experience and hence paid little.

They had to work long hours each day to make enough money. The history of New York’s clothing industry is full of examples of poor working conditions and inadequate safety precautions. It was common practice for management to lock the emergency doors during working hours, as was done in one tragic instance. This was to prevent workers stealing things and leaving the building via fire exits instead of the main doors. Shirtwaist, or ladies’ blouse, was a popular item in the early 1900s, worth a significant amount of money, the sort of thing that workers might be tempted to steal. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the thousands of clothing factories in lower Manhattan.

They employed the immigrants, mostly Jewish and Italian, who streamed into New York and factory managers were able to take advantage of these new arrivals. Even after fifteen hours of work a day many of them had to take clothing home to be finished there in order to make enough money. No health or insurance benefits were provided, no extra money for working overtime, and frequently children were employed. “Sweatshops” and “fire and death traps,” were the terms often used to describe these places of work. It was in these factories that some of the strongest trade unions took shape to fight for better working conditions. They had to work hard for the right to present workers’ grievances to managers.

In many cases the managers refused to recognize their existence and even threatened workers who supported them. In 1909, facing persistent refusal from management to listen to their complaints, 20,000 shirtwaist workers, mainly women, went on strike. There were no laws guaranteeing them this right so business leaders persuaded the police to arrest them for lawless behavior. There were also acts of brutality by the police to intimidate them. In spite of the conflict the strike secured some concessions and there was a general pay raise and the workweek was fixed at a maximum of fifty-two hours. The Asch Building at the south of Manhattan Island, New York, was a modern structure and had a reputation for being fireproof.

It had ten floors and the top three floors belonged to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Five hundred women worked in these three floors. Shortly before five o’clock in the afternoon of a day in March of 1911, as workers were about to leave, a fire broke out on the eighth floor. Like the two other floors above it, this floor was filled with sewing machines crammed so close together that little aisle space was left for moving about. Scraps of cloth and paper patterns lay around and they soon increased the spread of flames and smoke. The fire had started quickly and flared out just as rapidly. A number of workers from the eighth floor rushed to the stairway in time to see the whole floor erupt in a mass of flames. Many of them managed to escape with their clothes on fire. It was a different story on the ninth floor. The elevator quit and never reached that floor.

The emergency door leading to the fire escape had been locked previously and by the time someone broke it down the fire escape had collapsed under the heat of the fire. A few who reached the fire escape were killed as it collapsed. Others, desperate and with nowhere to turn, chose to jump to their death rather than be incinerated. Firemen had difficulty bringing a ladder into position because of the bodies strewed over the pavement, not all of them yet dead. Furthermore, their ladder, when it was erected, could only reach as far as the eighth floor. Life nets were brought in to try and catch those falling down but the women fell with such force that they went right through the nets. In less than two hours 147 bodies lay dead on the sidewalk below.

The events of March 1911 were exceptional because of the large number of workers killed but other aspects were typical of the times. The fire and its effects were all over in two hours and firemen were left with the task of removing the bodies of those who had died on one of the upper floors. By the standards of the time the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was not held responsible for the fire and loss of life even though it was quite obvious that it had failed to ensure safety for its workers.

Action was taken immediately by city authorities to institute factory inspections, fireproofing, and installation of sprinkler systems. The union representing the garment workers was not satisfied with these moves. They felt they could no longer trust anyone but themselves for their safety and took action within a few days of the tragedy. Parents and friends of the victims of the fire met with the Ladies’ Waist and Dress Makers’ Union a few days after the tragedy to give them support. They were completely in favor of the union’s demand that the company owners be brought to trial.

They were also concerned, as was the union, about the disposal of the $100,000 that had been collected for the families of the victims. These two issues galvanized the union. They were convinced that appeals to authorities for corrective action were simply not working and they resolved to be more militant in the future. This is what their president said at the time: “Just because a safety committee was appointed and newspapers devoted pages to the problems in the factories, we cannot assume that the 30,000 shops in the city will suddenly become perfect. As long as the enforcement of labor laws is in the hands of political people, factories will remain unsafe and unhealthy. We must depend entirely upon ourselves for improvements.” In later years other trade unions referred back to them as pioneers of the trade union movement.

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