Note: This post is a few days late. In fact I only learned about this tragedy in from a short entry in a labor history web page posted to Facebook yesterday. Which is more than strange because I am pretty familiar with labor history and disasters and Chicago history. It turns out how a catastrophe of this magnitude can “get lost” has a lot to do with the status of the victims….
On January 20, 1909 a flash fire consumed a wooden barracks building on a stone pier in Lake Michigan about a mile off of 71st Street. Between 40 and 70 men—sources vary widely likely because no good records were kept and bodies were incinerated or lost in the lake—were killed. Upwards of 100 others barely survived by jumping into the water and clinging to ice floes until help finally arrived from the shore. Yet the horrific event is strangely missing from Chicago history which has documented and commemorated other disasters ranging from the Iroquois Theater fire and Eastland capsizing to the Holy Angel School fire and Loop El derailment. How could that be?
It has a lot to do with the victims. They were mostly immigrants, overwhelmingly Irish. They were employed by contractor George Jackson to build a brick lined tunnel from the lake to the city as a conduit for fresh water to the rapidly growing South Side. Some were experienced tunnel rats—diggers of underwater tunnels and one of the most dangerous construction jobs of all. Others were casual laborers. Most were single and itinerant—moving from job to job, city to city. The more skilled men got about $2 a week, room and board in the barracks for weeks at a time while on the job. Laborers made about a buck. A handful of foremen and superintendents did better. But by in large they were nameless and faceless with few wailing widows and children left behind. In the America of that era no population was more expendable.
The fact that the fire occurred far away from the bustling streets meant Chicago’s press was not there to document it with dramatic photographs or interviews with witnesses. They hardly even bothered to interview survivors. We have left is a grainy photo of some blanket wrapped survivors and some shots of the burned out pier.
Finally as a major municipal project with an inevitably clout heavy contractor, City authorities were not keen on a deep investigation that would have uncovered the dangerous conditions in which the men labored and lived. There would not be thundering editorials demanding reform or months of headlines about investigations. It would disappear from the city’s consciousness by the time trees on shore began to bud.
The fire broke out in the early morning before the men went down to the tunnel. It flashed through the wooden barracks in moments. Someone made frantic telephone call to the shore office, “The crib is on fire! For God's sake send help at once or we will be burned alive! The tug...” That was as far as the caller got. The line went dead.
Men were burned in their bunks or trampled in the scramble to escape. The fire quickly spread to the wooden deck of the pier leaving no safe haven. They began to jump the ten feet or so into the Lake. Many drowned, others clung to ice floes.
Meanwhile on shore there was a scramble to send relief. But the main supply tug did not have a head of steam up and small boats had a hard time breaking through the shore ice. It was almost an hour before help arrived. Too late for many.
The exact cause of the conflagration has never been determined. It might have been that careless smoking ignited one of the flimsy mattress pads or that there was some sort of accident with the coal stoves that heated the building. At least one survivor reported that a janitor had sprinkled the barracks with gasoline to control an infestation of bed bugs. That little tidbit caused the disaster to be briefly mentioned recently when the city was cited by Orkin for two years running as the most bed bug infested city in the country.
Interest in the disaster was also stirred in 2009 when divers with the Underwater Archeological Society of Chicago began exploring sunken remnants of the disaster and a former Chicago Fire Commissioner James Joyce took up an interest in the case. But after a short flurry of newspaper articles, the Crib fire rapidly faded back into oblivion.
A few days after the fire thousands of curious Chicagoans lined the streets of the South Side to watch a parade of horse drawn hearses deliver dozens of caskets to Mount Greenwood Cemetery. Contractor Jackson “generously” paid for the funerals and burial. Each casket was lowered into an unmarked grave. Today you can find the only monument to the dead there, a simple brass plaque donated much later by the Mount Greenwood Cemetery Association which reads “In Memory of Crib Fire, 45 unknown men, Jan. 20, 1909.”
You can see a familiar Chicago landmark, the 68th Street Water Crib built on a hexagonal artificial island with a light beacon and adjacent round red brick tank near the site of the fire.