Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Key That Failed a City

After finishing my book Devil in the White City yesterday (a book about the Columbia Exposition in Chicago) I was inspired to take a closer look at a key that I often point out to visitors - The Chicago Fire Box Key. Thanks to my History of Chicago professor, Chris Folk, I know a good deal about the affair.

The letter with the key reads:
At the time of the Chicago Fire, 1871, the fire alarm box stood at the corner of DeCoven and Desplaines Streets. This key is said to be the key that was chained on the inside of the box, behind the glass cover. After the Great Fire, the glass door type fire alarm boxes were replaced with the more modern type having a handle outside to be turned in case of fire.
Of course there were many factors that lead to the fire's "great" destruction. Several smaller fires occurred the week leading up to the great fire leaving behind dry, damaged debris that would later fuel even greater inferno. On top of this, the city struggled to keep water supplies clean and accessible.

At 9:00pm on Sunday the 8th of October, first reports of a fire are made. The Great Chicago Fire was in fact several smaller fires sparking and joining together. The fire burned through Sunday until early Tuesday morning.

Immediately after the fire, the Chicago Tribune ran a story blaming poor Mrs. O'Leary, an Irish Immigrant and farmer on the southwest side of the city otherwise known as the "Back of the Yards," for the start of the fire. As the legend goes, Mrs. O'Leary was out milking her cow late at night when the cow suddenly kicked over the lantern, thus setting the barn and surrounding area aflame. 

Chicago Tribune journalist, Michael Ahern, later admitted the story was entirely made up, but the damage was already done. Years later, people still talk and sing nursery rhymes about poor Mrs. O'Leary. 

...But perhaps this little key hidden away in our collections is more to blame?

Until next time,