Back to Notorious Chicago
The Chicago Union Stock Yards fire occurred from December 22 to December 23, 1910 and resulted in the deaths of twenty-one Chicago Fire Department firemen. Though this blaze became infamous, fires at the Stockyards were not uncommon. Highly flammable chemicals used for meat production and spilled on Stockyard floors made conditions ripe for fires. The fire was started by a faulty electrical socket.
The fire, which broke out at Warehouse 7 of the Nelson Morris Company at the Chicago Union Stock Yards on the 4300 block of South Loomis Street, was first reported on December 22 at 4:09 am. Half an hour later it was listed as a 4-11 blaze and within a few hours, more than thirty-fire engines were battling the blaze. By the time the blaze was extinguished at 6:37 am on December 23, 50 engine companies and seven hook and ladder companies had been called to the scene. Fire hydrants near the location had been shut off prior to the outbreak of the fire to prevent freezing.
Until September 11, 2001, it was the deadliest building collapse in American history, in terms of firefighter fatalities, although the Texas City Disaster of 1947 killed more firefighters overall. It remains the worst such incident in Chicago history.
Lead story from Chicago Examiner, December 23, 1910
HEROES of a hundred holocausts, the fire fighters of Chicago won another battle yesterday. In that place of Death, consecrated the needs of the living to the outpouring of blood, the stock yards was the scene of a Titanic struggle between the force that was once characterized as “a good servant, but a terrible master,” and all the enginery built up by man’s ingenuity to subdue the flames. Backed by indomitable courage and captained by a chief who knew no fear, brave men, clad in the blue uniform of civic service, dauntlessly faced the swirl of deadly gases aud the sweep of flames—and died there.
Twenty-five men, headed by Horan—Horan the brave—whose memory will ever be revered in Chicago, were swept from their danger-posts amid a smother of falling wall; buried beneath ten thousand tons of twisted masonry, of gloving beams, of incandescent brick and mortar. They gave their lives in the first swift onrush, where Death and the Fire King stalked hand in hand across the battle line. Their crushed and mangled bodies, mute evidence of the malignity of their foe, were snatched from their fellows by the vibrant heat of the great conflagration.
Scene at Stockyards Fire When Assistant Chief Burroughs’ Body was Recovered.
Flames Beaten Back in Rescue of the Dead.
Balked for a time in their task of rescuing even the mutilated bodies of their idolized chieftain and their brave companions, the fire fighters redoubled their exertions, and accomplished the seemingly impossible task of beating back the advancing fire, and by superhuman exertions plucked, one by one, limp forms, which but a few hours before had been instruct with courage and red blooded love of combat, and bore them to their homes, or laid them reverently beside their engines, as soldiers lay their comrades beside the guns they have given their lives to defend.
The immense beef house of Morris & Co., whose surroundings half obscured its great mass, lay m the very apex of the pyramid where the phalanx of packingdom obtrudes into the yards. Before it, and to the east, stand the pens where thousands of sheep and cattle await their doom; back and to the south are great buildings where the commissary of nations is furnished.
In the years before other great conflagrations have raged and eaten their way into the close-hedged square of the stock yards. Now a fertilizer bursting into flame, anon a lard refinery, like some huge fire pot, seething with incandescent gases, riotous with flaring vapor, rushed heavenward in smoke and flames. But the reservoirs of commerce, those huge coolers where hang the carcasses of cattle from a thousand hills, have hardly been touched.
Fire Marshal Horan Among First On Scene.
Equipped with every possible device, guarded by sleepless watchmen whose vigils extend from noon to noon, every foot of those great plants is paced unceasingly by employes whose sole duty it is to protect, to detect, to sound the alarm tbe first moment of danger, yet scarcely had the first picket fired his gun, hardly had the first patrol rushed to the spot, before the first squadron of defense swung into line, before it was seen that, so serious the conflict, so deadly the blaze, re-enforcemeuts only might save the day.
Alarm after alarm was sounded. Distant engines were rushed by foam-flecked horses from outlying stations. In every station house m Chicago the stroke of gongs hurried men from sleep and safety to dare the fury of the flame. Hardly had the first companies attached their hose than there appeared among them the one man whose genius had welded them into the most compact and efficient fire-fighting force m the world.
James Horan, fire marshal in every pulse beat, a man called from early manhood to devote the best years of his life to this very cause, sprang into the fray and directed the placing of the lines, marshaled his companies into the most advantageous positions, massed the engines here, his patrols there, showing m every command his entire grasp of that most dreaded foe, a stock yards fire.
His practiced eye sought out the danger spot. Above the loading platform of the beef house there ran but yesterday a long canopy of wood, designed to shelter the workmen as they loaded the refrigerator cars with the freshly wiped carcasses of cattle. Above that the pouring smoke told the story. Below a line of cars stood ready to receive the daily grist.
The man in the center with the bare head (arrow) had fallen between two freight cars and lost his helmet. As he emerged the crowd, thinking one of the buried firemen had been saved, cheered wildly, only to find their hopes disappointed a moment later.
Chief Directs Work Of Fighting the Flames.
“Take your lead of hose over those cars,” he shouted to Captain Collius of engine company No. 59. “Don’t take them under,” he added, warningly. “Just as soon as you have men enough,” turning to Assistant Marshal Seyferlich, who had just come up, “you can get those cars out of there.”
Shouting to his men, the Chief sprang upon the loading platform, followed by his chauffeur, Lieutenant Joseph Mackey, Assistant Chief Burroughs, Captain Collins, Captain Dennis Doyle (is it a wonder they called them “The Fighting Race”?), Lieutenant Stum, and a score of men as brave as they. Did one of those men see Death hovering above them? Not a man would have faltered if the Grim Reaper had shaken them by the shoulder.
A shudder ran along the wall. Tons of masonry, weakened by the interior fires, pushed outwards by the resistless pressure of expanding gases, trembled and shivered. Slowly bulgiag, the wall, obscured from view by the overhanging canopy, hovered totteringly.
Chief Horan directed the placing of the lines of hose, meanwhile directing Assistant Chief Burroughs to mount the canopy and see what the outlook was on the upper floors. Scaling a pompier ladder, Burroughs, followed by Lieutenant Mackey, sprang out upon the roof of the loading platform. Instantly he saW the fire would have to be attacked from above as well as from below.
To Mackey he shouted: “Tell the Chief to put the men upon the second and third floors. and rush more leads of hose over the cars.” Plunging to obey, Mackey saw, with horror, the swaying walls.
Slain Fire Marshal, His Stricken Widow and Three of his Fatherless Children.
Warning of Falling Wall Comes Too Late.
“Look out, below!” he screamed. “‘Look out for the wall!” His voice was lost in the roar of falling brick. of crashing beams. of tearing wood and rending iron. Like a flood the storm of debris swept down, tossing like a rag in a gale, the huge canopy crumpled, the men disappearing as leaves in a whirlpool.
Down went the Chief. None saw him fall. Down went his gal1ant men. Burroughs, ardent; Collins, eager; Doyle, alert. Down went chief and captain, lieutenant and pipeman. In one impending, rush. like molten lava, a bell of glowing wood, ot redhot brick, of twisted steel. showered by a million embers, by a stream ot burning grease, by agonizing steam, nearly thirty heroes consecrated the spot to bravery, where but a moment before all had been sordid and mean.
An instant paralysis seized the men just outside the danger zone. For an instant only grim horror laid its cold hand on every heart. Momentarily they paused, awed by the awful presence, then, manlike, they stumbled back to duty. moistening their ups with efforts, their eyes dim with tears.
Daunted? Never! Afraid? Not a pipeman but would have smiled to step in that raging Gehenna and lay down his life for his chief, for his captain, for any single man among those writhing in dreadful postures amid that inferno.
It was for just such a moment as that which saw the death of Horan that discipline had worked unceasingly for half a century. Assistant Chief Seyferl1ch assumed oharge. The men responded nobly. Attacking the fire from every point of vantage, driven now from this, now from that position, they returned to the attack doggendly. Hampered by lack of adequate water supply, crippled by their losses, handicapped by fate, they never yet lost a battle, and victory at any cost must be won.
Throbbing untiringly, the engine shook while the pumps churned and spurted. Leads of hose were carried over, under, through or past obstructions. Locomotives tugged and strained to pull out the train from the grasp of the wreckage. Men were told off to tear away from the fallen mass.
Shoulder to shoulder, closing up the depleted ranks, the smoke-begrimed heroes toiled, with blistered lips, with torn and bleeding hands, every muscle aching, every limb benumbed, choking with dust, sobbing with grief, but never for an instant anything but fire fighters, the men of Chicago’s fire department were worthy of their trust. In the supreme test they proved that manhood in which more than wealth, more than culture, more than religion, is the country’s hope.
Nelson Morris Warehouse No. 7
Between 43rd and 44th Streets on Loomis
Body of Fire Marshal Horan Found.
Seventeen hours later John Drennecke of Truck 7, one of the men detailed to remove the debris from the fatal loading platform, came upon the lifeless form of Chief Horan.
“I was at work with others,” gasped Drennecke, as he paused for a moment at the side of the pile of reeking ruins, “when I caught sight of a white helmet. ‘There’s the Chief,’ I thought, and if I worked before, I tore at the brick and planking then. In a minute, I caught a glimpse of a coat, and at the same time aq leg sticking out. “Two men,” says I to myself. Bit no, as we lifted away the the iron canopy, there lay, outstretched, crushed by the tons of dead weight, Chief Horan, drenched with water, charred and grimed, looking hardly human, as he lay, all crumpled up under the east wall.
“He was lying between the railroad track and the building, none nearer to the danger line; just as he always was, in the lead. For some little time we could not pry up the overwhelming weights which held him down. More men, and yet more, rushed to our help. Not a man thought of the heat. Not a fellow saw anything but the chief. Dead though we knew him to be, he was our chief, and we loved him.”
Scenes at the Fire Showing How Horan and His Men Died and the Rescue Parties Searching Ruins
Hero’s Life Against the Dollar Sign.
The death at Cblef Horan made a profound impression. for no human lives were at stake when he coolly faced the last alarm. No beckoning hands wildly tossed from upper windows, no white flames peeked through broken sashed. Nothing but a deserted building, crowded with carcasses of beef, piled high with hams and bacon and soggy hides in dark cellars. A veritable charnel house, silent and lifeless. And it was for this that the bravest fire chief gave his life. A life against a dollar sign!
When Drennecke held up the battered white helmet, shouting, “Here he is!” scores of firemen, representatives from every truck company in the city, rushed to the spot and eagerly tore at the seven feet tangle of rubbish. There were Third Assistant Chief Thomas O’Connor and J. R. Larson of Truck No. 14, and Peter J. Leonard of No. 30, Thomas Powers of No. 17 and H. Mortonson of the same company.
Robert Evans of No. 23, Frank McGraw of No. 81, George Duffy of No. 6, Gustave Jafke of No. 19, Nathan Hally of No. 6, and Frank Daily of No. 7. Scooping away the dirt which threatened to engulf again the place where they felt certain lay their chieftain., Larson saw first the thatch of red hair. “My God!” he exclaimed. “In with it,” tugging at the 4-inch steel beam which seemed to pin down all the rest.
In a crouch, as if twisting to the last terrible strain, his left leg twisted, cut off below the knee by a shear of steel, one hand grasping his lamp, James Horan lay dead.
Chief Horan fortelted his life to a danger that he had striven the best part ot his life to eliminate-the inadequate low·pressure water system. From the time that he reached a position in the department high enough for his voice to be heard by the men who control the city’s business and its government he advocated, night and day, the establishment of a high-pressure system. He would say:
We can’t put out the fire without water. My men are as game a lot as live and they are perfectly willing to risk their lives to save property, but it is only fair that they should have mechanical help. Without it any sacrifices they make are useless.
They are not afraid to try, but the fact remains that a mere thing of flesh and blood can’t put out a mountain of flames with his bare hands. The loop district, all the congested and factory districts, and especially the stock yards, should have separate high-pressure water systems as a matter of dollars and cents economy on the part of property owners.
Repeatedly Chief Horan voiced the necessity of high-pressure systems to members of the City Council, but for some reason the necessary pumps and pipes were not installed.
Only last week, following the Armory fire at the yards, where Chief Horan risked his life to save one of his men, only to drag him out dead, the Chief held a conference with the packers on the subject. He recommended that all the private high-pressure systems be consolidated, so that whenever a fire broke out in any of the plants at the yards all of the high-pressure system could work in conjunction.
This plan had met with his life the favor of the packers, who had great admiration and respect for the man who had been imperiling his life almost from boyhood in their interests. But that was only a week ago and such things are not accomplished in a day.
To-day “Jim” Horan dies in his coffin because yesterday he did not have the water he fought so long to get.
December 23, 1910
Chicago Daily News, December 23, 1910
Left: Firefighters battling the Morris and Co. fire in the Union Stockyards.
Right: Fire Chief James Horan, walking past a building at a fire.
Chicago Examiner, December 24, 1910
Top: Taking Fire Chief Horan’s body from ruins.
Middle: Firemen’s relief committee in session:
Left to right, J. Harry Selz, B. E. Sunny, Walter H. Wilson, Harlow N.Higinbotham and Fred W. Upham.
Bottom: Desk of dead Fire Marshal draped in mourning.
Chicago Sunday Tribune, March 29, 1914