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The name “Little Hell” was derived from the large gas house that was located at Crosby and Hobbie streets whose night time flames lit the skies at night. The roaring thunder of the furnaces could be heard for blocks as coal was poured into the ovens and moistened with water from the Chicago River to create gas that was used for heating, cooking and lighting. Enormous tanks stored the gas during the day.
Housing near the steel mills and gas works of Goose Island drew many Italian immigrants to the area known as “Little Hell.”
From The Standard Guide To Chicago For The Year 1893:
At the time of the great fire the region west of Larrabee st. was almost unoccupied as far down as the river, and when the relief work began this tract was suggested as a good place for the building of houses for the people whose property had been destroyed. So a lot of small cottages and one long, low building with a room for each family in it were erected.
The long, low building was called “The Barracks.” It stood on the west side of Crosby st., just across from the gas works, and it was the center of ail the glorious doings that made “Little Hell” historical. The citizens of the “Hell” were comfortably fixed for social enjoyment. Their food and lodgings, and much of their clothing, came from the Relief and Aid Society. Work was plenty arid labor was high. They found themselves each week with a surplus on hand and nothing to do with it, unless they devote it to the pleasures of the cup that cheers. It was thus that “Little Hell” began.
The police found it out first. Every night a patrolman would come in for help from the station to subdue a riot. When an old officer was to be punished, or a new one tried, he was sent to ” Little Hell.” Sometimes he lasted a week. If he was particularly tough and courageous, and if he had a hard head, he survived perhaps a month. Then he usually went to the hospital to furnish an interesting case of compound fracture or concussion of the brain to the clinics. “Little Hell” was a “terror district” for several years after the fire and many a bloody murder was committed within its precincts. But most of the desperate characters who infested the district have been killed or sent to the penitentiary or driven out of the city. The houses in “Little Hell” are even giving way to new brick structures, but there are frequent relics of the old “relief cottages” to be seen in the famous tract.
The heart of “Little Hell”. The gas works at Hobbie and Crosby streets.
Goose Island (Kilgubbin)
In 1853, William B. Ogden, a Chicago real estate developer, built a channel to provide a more straightforward alternative to Chicago River’s winding North Branch. The result was an island, the only island in Chicago. It quickly became a haven for Irish immigrants who were so poor they couldn’t afford proper housing. This island was part of the “Little Hell” neighborhood.
They dubbed the island Kilgubbin, after the area in County Cork, Ireland, where most of them were originally from. These inhabitants were squatters. The definition of a squatter, according to a Chicago Times in August, 1865 article, is as follows:
A squatter clings to a piece of ground, with bull-dog tenacity. The unlucky owner of the property might as well attempt to depopulate half the city as to get them off his land. . . . The shanty once erected, the pigsty built and the garden fenced in and planted, the squatter is as confident of his right of possession as if he held a deed of the land.
John Drury’s Map of Goose Island
Chicago Daily News
March 26, 1930