Story of a Fire (5-10-1911)

Fires were always a threat in Chicago.  Even after the big one of 1871, the problem continued.   In many areas of the city, the lots were 25-feet wide, and the houses were frame with tarred roofs.  Often there was a second wooden shack hugging the rear of the property.  Fires started easily and spread quickly.

0--Back of Yards

On this date, another major blaze broke out on the South Side, in the crowded Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood.  At about 3 in the afternoon, a bunch of neighborhood kids decided to burn an old mattress in the alley behind 4500 South Laflin Street.  The day was hot, dry, and windy.  Sparks flew, and set a barn on fire.  Then a house, then another house.

Soon most of the block was blazing.  A dozen fire companies rushed to the scene.  Water pressure in the area was always weak—-the nearby Stock Yards took a lot of water for everyday business—-so the firemen had trouble getting a strong spray onto the flames.   The fire spread.   The whole neighborhood seemed likely to go up.

Mary McDowell

Mary McDowell

Over on Gross Avenue, Mary McDowell and her cohorts at the University of Chicago Settlement House swung into action.  As the fire blazed, dozens of people emptied into the streets in panic.  While the firemen continued to battle the blaze, the settlement workers took charge of calming the frightened mob.

Within thirty minutes of the first alarm, the Settlement House had been turned into a relief station.  As one newspaper put it, McDowell’s team “stemmed the stampede, soothed the scared, and bandaged the burned.”   They reunited the remnants of separated families.  They fed the hungry.  They found shelter for the newly homeless.  One of the settlement nurses rushed into a burning building and personally rescued seven babies.

At length, the fire was put out.  Twenty buildings had been destroyed and 150 people left without homes.  Remarkably, no one had been killed.  The fire-fighters had done their usual, splendid job.  And now the U of C settlement workers were also recognized as “heroines” for bringing relief to the victims.

Today, the Stock Yards are gone.  The University of Chicago Settlement House is also gone.  But Gross Avenue, where the settlement once stood, is now called McDowell Avenue.



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