FORGOTTEN FIRES OF CHICAGO
The Lake Michigan Inferno and a Century of Flame
By John F. Hogan & Alex A. Burkholder
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Great Chicago Fire burned from October 8-10, 1871, destroying much of the city of Chicago and allowing a more modern city to grow in its place. That conflagration was not the end of the city's troubles with fire and John F. Hogan and Alex A. Burkholder explore eighteen additional fires in Forgotten Fires of Chicago: The Lake Michigan Inferno and a Century of Flame. They lay out their plan early in the book, noting that they have already published Fire Strikes the Chicago Stock Yards, a volume exploring the various fires that broke out at the city's stockyards over the years.
The eighteen fires covered throughout the book range from a fire that broke out in one of the water intake cribs located offshore in Lake Michigan to theatre and hotel fires. The chapters have a tendency to be relatively short, providing information about the location of the fires, the number of injured or killed, and, when known, the cause, although several of the fires were started by undetermined causes. The focus of most of the chapters is on the fire department's response to the fires, with long lists of engine companies and names of fire fighters who were involved, several of which recur throughout the book.
Many of the chapters take on a familiarity that makes the book feel repetitive. Although the authors occasionally give more extended background of the property that burned or the owners, or discuss the ramifications the fire had or the way the city handled fires differently in the future based on lessons learned, there is little to distinguish one fire from another and by the end of the book they have had a tendency to blend into each other. The title of the book, particularly the word "forgotten" appears to be apropos.
Some of Chicago's best known fires are mentioned: the Great Fire of 1871, the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903, and the Our Lady of Angels fire of 1958, but they are discussed in a manner which assumes the reader is well aware of those fires, their extent, and their importance. The failure to explain their importance relegates them to the same status of the forgotten fires the book is focusing on. While they are clearly not considered "forgotten" fires, they authors do not provide an indication why they are remembered, while others, such as the McCormick Place fire of 1967 are considered "forgotten."
It isn't just the fires that are forgotten. The victims are also forgotten. The authors are careful about noting firemen who died in the course of performing their duties, or, in the case of fireman Frank Leavy, the existence of a mysterious handprint that remained on glass for twenty years. Victims, on the other hand, tend to be grouped as "the eight young women and four men" who died in the L. Fish Furniture fire in 1910. While it might not help the narrative to list all of the victims, especially for larger fires such as the 1909 Lake Michigan Crib fire, in the text, an appendix that focused on the victims, civilian and firefighter alike, would have been a welcome addition to the book.
Overall, Forgotten Fires of Chicago provides a quick, basic look at eighteen fires that helped define Chicago, but the book doesn't really explain why these particular fires were selected or how they helped define the city that grew following the fires. Noting that the two incidents at Turner Hall a month apart in 1900 and 1901 which didn't involve fires, could have helped prevent the Iroquois Theatre Fire is a step in the right direction, but the authors don't take the next step to see why there was no follow-up. Ultimately, the book leaves the reader wanting to know more and feeling that there was little to distinguish the fires described.
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