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While the cause of the Jan. 20, 1909, fire remains one of Chicago’s great unsolved mysteries — a janitor was rumored to have sprinkled gasoline to ward off bedbugs — the fire also represents a chapter of city history largely unknown.
From Chicago Examiner, January 21, 1909
Sixty-seven men died in the great disaster at the intermediate crib two miles out in Lake Michigan yesterday. Forty-eight bodies have been recovered and it is known that many others are beneath the surface of the lake. All the rescued have been tabulated. The sixty-seven are unaccounted for. There is no hope that they might have escaped.
Exact identification will probably never be made of many of the bodies for most of them are headless burned and dismembered. They are all in Murphy’s morgue in South Chicago. The missing are regarded as dead since all the rescued are accounted for and there is no place about the scene of the holocaust where a man who has not yet been saved can survive.
Fear that a score of men were trapped in the tunnel 160 fee below the level was dispelled througe the heroism of city employes who risked their lives by descending through the shaft. It was found that two workmen only were in the depths below the crib. One of these was rescued, unconscious from the foul air, despite the hours of air pumping. the other was dead.
Gus Rolson, employed at the Sixty-second street crib, volunteered to make the perilous descent. The shaft was choked with smoldering beams. He put on a tarpaulin and was lowered on a metal rope. When he failed to answer the calls from above he was hoisted up unconscious from the fumes.
City Diver Descends Into Shaft
Captain Daniel Donovan, a city diver, then arrived with his rubber suit. His helmet was fitted with 100 feet of suction hose and he descended. He dragged the beams apart with his gloved hands and finally cleared the tunnel. At a signal from the diver, George Curis and William McElhenny descended in a bucket.
In the eye of the shaft his lips pressed close to the compressed air pipe that had been feeding him life-saving air for eight hours was found Nathan Fuldt, a workman who lives at 163 Twenty-fifth street. He was taken to the surface where the rush of air rendered him unconscious. He was taken to the South Chicago hospital and his condition is grave.
Fifty feet farther down the shaft was found a negro driller, dead. His name was not discovered but in his pocket was a tag numbered 468 by which he may be identified.
An element of doubt still stands as to the fate of five men who were seen by a street car conductor at sundown floating in the lake off Thirty-first street on a block of ice. The fire tug Illinois was hurried there and the little steamer never traveled faster. But darkness hung over the water long before the searchers arrived. Hallooing through megaphones brought no response.
Contractor Who Is Building Crib, Rescuers Searching the Ruins for Bodies and Recovering Victims From the Ice Floes; Diagram Shows Crib, the Tramway to Shore, and Shaft Connecting With Tunnel.
Little Chance to Save Floating Men’s Lives.
The rescuers of yesterday who have learned the effects of the exposure and the treachery of ice cakes as life rafts say that if the five men were afloat at the time they were reported seen they have scarcely a chance for life as against the chances of freezing to death or slipping into the water to drown.
In the face of this horror, after the conscious rescued had been interviewed and statements had been taken from the officials of George W. Jackson Inc., the company that directed the work at the crib, the authorities were unable last night to reach a conclusion as to the cause of the fire that destroyed the crib and the explosion that preceded it, nor has the responsibility been fixed.
It is certain that adequate precautions to save life in case of such an occurrence had not been provided. Survivors say there was only one door on the second floor where seventy men ‘ were shut in by fire. Only this exit and the narrow windows afforded escape.
County and city officials pledged themselves last night to bring the facts to light and to discover who is responsible for the holocaust.
Ruins of Crib as They Appeared After Fire and Explosion; Firemen Flooding Debris; Carrying Bodies of Victims From Tug to Dock; Rescuers Tapping Pipe Leading From Crib Into Shaft in Hope of Receivinga Signal From Imprisoned Men; Jas. Mulholland,a Survivor.
Photographs by Nathan Meissler, who rowed out to the crib in a small boat
Schuettler Says Police Will Investigate.
Assistant Chief Schuettler, in temporary command of the Police Department said:
This is the worst disaster Chicago has known since the Iroquois Theater fire. I will use every man in the department if necessary to learn who was responsible. The origin of the fire so far is a mystery. The bodies may never be identified but we will find ont who is to blame.
Coroner Peter Hoffman said:
I will impanel a high-class jury and will engage if necessary experts in mechanics and marine engineering to belp me in discovering the responsibility. I do not think there wag a dynamite explosion. But the facts are yet to be brought out.
There was not a single boat or other craft within a mile of the crib. George W. Jackson admits tbat the only fire fighting apparatus in the inflammable wooden building which housed a powder magazine and unknown quantities of dynamite, was a few axes and some hand fire extinguishers which were useless.
The presence of even this pitiful equipment is denied by the men who were saved.
Fire Was Preceded by an Explosion
The only fact definitely established re garding the source of the fire is that an explosion preceded the appearance of the flames by about three minutes.
Various theories have been advanced with this as a basis. City Engineer Ericson believes that a workman dropped a lighted match or a pipe spark in the magazine room. James Shaffer, one of the survivors describes the explosion as so heavy that it rocked the building which might have set off the nitroglycerin in the magazine. Another survivor says he saw a negro workman enter the powder room a moment before the explosion and that he might have dropped some explosive to the floor.
Those who sought yesterday to determine the facts were rebuffed and fought at every angle by the representatives of George W. Jackson Inc., and a system of suppression was instituted which was but one of the incidents that made yesterday’s disaster a grewsome reminder of the Iroquois Theater fire.
Newspaper men who attempted after braving death over more than a mile of water in tiny rowboats to enter the ruins were forced to fight the agents of the corporation. At the Seventy-third street office of the company which has direct telephone connection with the crib guards, were set at the doors to keep inquirers out.
Tug Brings 40 Bodies to the Shore
The attitude taken by he company was most cruelly expressed in an incident at Ninety-second street and the Calumet River when the tug L. C. Sabin (U. S. No. 205129) swung down to lhe landing pier with more than forty of the dead bodies lying ou its decks. On the shores were gathered thousands including many frenzied relatives of the dead and missing fearsomeiy awaiting tidings that could come only from the craft that was approaching.
As it came into view at the pier a man wns seen standing on ihe cabin. He was E. E. Lee, Jackson’s traffic manager. The tug Rita McDonald with Inspector Hunt and the Coroner aboard steamed out to meet it. As it came into shouting distance, Lee raised his right hand palm outward and shouted loudly enough to be heard by all on shore:
No newspaper reporters!
And this command tbat no newspaper men would be received on the boat was the only news that the waiting thousands received for more than an hour from the fateful boat, for it steamed off to the fee other side of the river, where reporters could not approach, and only from the distance could be seen the awful work of hptting the bodies and parts of bodies into gunnysacks.
Bringing the dead to the dock.
Bodies Brought to Shore in Sacks
And in the gunny sacks they were brought ashore. The desperate relatives crowded past the police lines defying clubs that the policemen had not the heart to use. All they saw was a seemingly unending procession of firemen and police men in uniform each carrying in his arms a shapeless bundle in a coarse sack.
Throughout the day the facts as to the number of men in the crib were concealed at the Jackson offices until more bodies had been carried into Murphy’s morgue than Jackson had said were ln the crib. The company refused to give out a list of the men in the doomed house though the list was in possession of the manager at the Seventy-third street office.
One source of possible identification was the brass pay tags bearing numbers of the employes which they carried in their pockets. The Jackson company had the list with the numbers but refused to give it to murphy so that he might aid the weeplngs hundreds who came to his back room seeking their dead.
It was learned last night, despite the Jackson concern’s secrecy that 108 men were employed in the crib. All of these were probably in the building when it was burned as well as a uumber of men, between fifteen and twenty five in number from the Dunne crib who slept at the intermediate station to save the expense of lodging.
In terrible incidents the disaster of yesterday has probably never been equaled. Every condition was there to make rescue almost hopeless and death grim and frightful.
Had No Chance for Life.
More than half the unfortunates in the crazy, wooden unprotected building isolated in midlake a mile and a half from a human hand of aid, met death and most of them never had a chance for life. Those whom the fire spared, the lake devoured, except for the few who were taken half dead with exposure, frozen to cakes of ice, or who were lucky enough to reach a gravel pile, which was the only solid formation within a mile of the deathtrap.
The incidents that occurred within the burning building are many and thrilling as they come from the lips of survivors and rescuers. But they transpired in less thau two minutes for in that time the rinder box caught fire and was destroyed burying in its burning debris more than thirty men.
The men who were rescued saved themselves until help came by sitting on cakes of ice or fighting their panic stricken fellows for an inch of rope attached to the girders or a slippery foothold on the ice covered gravel pile.
All those who were unable to reach the door or hurl themselves through a window perished in the flames. When the first aid arrived the men were floating on all sides of the crib. Fire was shooting ln every direction and at intervals the sharp reports of percussion caps exploding punctuated the shrieks of the dying and the singing and whistling of the men who had been crazed by pain and danger. Over it all rose the mortal shrieks of the men who still lived and were being incinerated.
The tug T. T. Morford won the glory of the day in the work of rescue and had it not been for the intrepid efforts and the wonderful judgment of its crew the list of rescued would not number a score.
Captain Sees Flames
The tug lay off Sixty-eighth street when the explosion boomed over the water. Captain Edward Johnson heard it. He knew it was not one of the regular blasts. He looked out and saw flames. He called his crew and the men sprang to their duties. Steam was up in a jiffy and the boat’s nose was toward the crib plowing at the capacity of the boilers.
When the tug came within a hundred yards of the crib, it ran into water peopled with the dying, floating face upward on ice cakes frozen solid praying for aid. Ropes, ladders, boxes and everything that would float were thrown to those who were swimming and the boat made its way through the floes as the crew reached forward and lifted the men on the ice cakes into safety. Forty men were rescued thus and they were almost the only ones saved.
Great deeds of heroism are recorded to the glory of the men whose own lives were threatened but who chanced to gain a more fortunate position in the water than some of their fellows. One mau who was safe on an ice cake slid off and drowned while striving to help another who was floundering about in the water. Then men clung to a pulley rope from an iron girder. The rope broke and they fell into the water. With wonderful presence of mind oue man made himself the leader, induced the nine frenzied men ln the face of death to release their hold, climbed up and refastened the rope.
“Hard Rock” Man Averts Panic
As the tug passed the gravel pile where a few men were huddled on the untrustworthy footing, two of the men started forward to the boat and threw two other men down the incline into the water. Danger of a similar fate, faced the others, when a giant driller still wearing the heavy boots of the “hard rock” men. seized a monster stone raised it over his head and cried:
Stand! I’ll break the head of the first man that moves! You’ll kill us all, you d—-d fools.
And the others stood firm until the last man had been lifted into the boat.
Upon the shore from which but a faint s view of the terrible sights could be gained s a large crowd gathered. Albert Mohr, wife of the millionaire boilermaker, who lives ln a mansion at Seventy-third street and the lake front was the first to see the fire from the shore. She ran out with a marine glass and soon from every quarter came hundreds.
Tug T. T. Morford Departing With Its First Load of Dead and Injured From the Burning Crib.
Women in Frenzy of Anxiety
There were few relatives of the endangered men in this assemblage. Three women were the center of interest for they had loved ones in the crib. A mother and , daughter who had made a swift run ln an automobile to the scene wept and wrung their bands and were finally led away ‘ without having received tidings.
Later they learned that the man for whom they feared had been saved. Another woman, young and pretty, seemingly a bride, fainted and fell upon the ice to the lake’s brim. She was carried to Mrs. Mohr’s home.
The pitiful scenes without number occurred at the Ninety-second street dock. There nfter the cruel suspense of an hour, while the police helped the Jackson Corporation conceal the bodies in sacks, the relatives and the friends waited ln the cold and wept and fell upon their knees to the frosted planking of the pier and prayed.
When the dead were brought forth there was no relief for tbeir suspense and the mourning hundreds followed the procession to the undertakers little shop at 110 Ninety-second street half a mile away.
Mourners Held Back
There the police held them back, for there was not room enough in which to work within and entertain the moaning hundreds, too. So they waited and waited and went away to spend the night without the knowledge they sought yet feared.
The rescued were all taken to the Illinois Hospital, Washington and Halsted streets after they were landed at the Wells Street bridge in the Morford and the fire tug Illinois which was the first , official carrier of relief very few of the , wounded were released last night to go , to their homes.
Last night Coroner Hoffman called a conference at the south Chicago police station. With him were present Captain Halpln, Assistant Chief Schuettler and inspector Hunt of the Police Department . and Murphy the undertaker.
The inquest was set for 10 o’clock this i morning in the station but it will be continued pending further investigation of the responsibility for the disaster.
Several of the survivors told last night of careless handling of dynamite within the crib. One of them told Captain Johnson of the tug Morford that dynamite sticks were left lying about the floor in working hours “where they could be reached conveniently.”
Jere Cronin, Ninety-second street and Buffalo avenue, after returning from a visit to the hospital said that Thomas Callahan one of the injured, had said to him:
Five days ago I was going to get my life insured. Dynamite was scattered over the floor and i didn’t feel safe. I think that somebody kicked a stick of dynamite and started that fire.
The mutilated condition of some of the bodies leads to the theory that a second dynamite explosion or powder explosion occurred when the fire reached the powder and magazine room. Captain Johnson of the Morford says he heard a second and very loud detonation. The survivors are uncertain as to this detail though they declare that whem the flames reached the powder room there must have been a terrible blast.
Survivors on the tug, T. T. Morford.
Two Shifts of Men Asleep.
The men who worked ln the crib were divided into three shifts. Two-thirds of them were asleep lu the little bunks along the inner wall on the second floor. The others were at breakfast ln a room on the lower floor ten feet from the mouth of the twenty-foot steel shaft that leads 162 feet down to the tunnel in bedrock.
The fire was first seen on the upper story. The sleepers sprang from their beds and the men below took up the cry of alarm. The flimsy mldlake structure was equipped with a few hand fire grenades and axes. The men whose presence of mind survived the first shock leaped to this pitiful apparatus and a few of the extinguishers were used.
But there was no chance to fight the flames that roared through the wind-dried timbers ln the teeth of a brisk breeze. The men realized that escape lay in flight alone and there was a dash for the tramway.
The tramway—the aerial cable road that had been the wonder of the euglneeriug world, the only one of its kind in the world—stretched to the shore its 8,000 feet of cheering metal support, strung on steel structures and here seemed safety.
Cable Softened by Heat, Breaks.
A hundred arms reached upward to launch one of the little basket cars that swung ln the wind and four men clam bered almost smiling into it when it broke through the three-inch cable soft ened by the beat and toppled into the lake. The loose end of the severed rope dangled down into the water leaving a void of 100 feet between the crib and the nearest of the steel supports and hope from the tramway died.
The men turned behind them there the flames roared as iu a furnace with no outlet. Above them was a sky of fire beneath them were the two precarious chances of life—the lake and the shaft.
Some of the men leaped from the windows into the water others who retained their discretion ran to the end of the room, and jumped to heaps of gravel and refuse of these only the men who died of exposure were lost.
Over the surface of the water for a few feet about the crib was solid ice a dozen men ran out upon the frozen surface but where they stepped the ice crumbled be neath their feet either because the terrible heat had partly melted it or because the moderate weather had left it too thin to support the weight of a man.
That left only the shaft for those who were not already struggling for life among the floes of broken ice. And there was a dash for the mouth of the tunnel. The bucket was down. The flrst man at the mouth pulled the lever, but there was no whirr of machinery, no rising of the bucket. The heat had burned the electric wires that furnished power.
Diagram of Crib, Showing Dynamite Bin
Drop of 160 Feet Down Shaft.
Down the shaft was a sheer drop of more than 165 feet. The men had only a few feet of flooring upon which to stand, and on this they were huddled, cursing, weeping, jostling each other undetermined what to do with certain death above them and all about them and escape cut off below.
The floor above crashed down and the burning planks rained npon the heads of the men. The fire from three sides was closing in and already the men about the outer edge of the frantic group were being scorched.
Suddenly the last wooden snpport tumbled down and the little flooring was ripped from beneath the feet of the men who were still in the doomed crib. Some of them grasped the slender girders which had been constructed as an added reinforcement for the floor. The others were projected down into the burning wreckage to be incinerated.
The men who grasped the steel supports were saved for only a few minutes of terrible mental agony and awful physical suffering. The fire had been below the floor as well as above it and the girders were hot and growing hotter. Soon they became red, and one by one the unfortunates, unable longer to endure the suffering released their hold to fall beside their dead and dying comrades in the blazing planks and debris. There they, too, died while their last calls of hopeless anguish floated out upon the lake.
There sixty men, many of them naked, and many of them wounded by the flre and from the long leap to the treacherous ice, were battling against all the elements for life. Few of them could swim well, for these hard rock men who drill below the surface of the earth have little familiarity with water.
The wind and the white-topped waves were tossing the broken ice about the surface and many of the men were able to reach the floes and climb upon them. Others struggled with the clumsy wavering cakes that meant their only desperate hope of life. Some of them conquered and dragged themselves upon the ice and others failed and sank.
Many Frozen to Death.
Those who gained the precarious refuge soon were frozen solidly to the ice. Thus some of the men who had braved a dozen deaths to reach the floating supports were frozen to death as they floated.
The lake was dotted with the survivors on their rafts of ice when the T. T. Morford, the rescuing tug, hove into view. Two men fell into the lake and were drowned in the sheer frenzy of stretching their arms fur help oue man who was fighting for a balance on the crazy, frozen craft that held him, leaned too far to one side and fell screaming into the water, where he drowned.
Another, an old man with flowing gray beard, was floating twenty yards from the path of the tug. When dozens of men were to be rescued, the bout could not turn aside for him. He cried for help and three times a rope was thrown to him, but he was frozen solid to the ice and could uot reach for it. The tug passed on the old man seemed to realize that hope was gone and with what appeared to the men on the boat as deliberate suicide, he swerved his body heavily turned about with the ice frozen to his back and was drowned as the floe bobbed outward into the lake.
Men working on both sides of the 68th Street Water Intake Crib.
Photo taken in late December, 1908.