The Iroquois Theatre fire
Calamities like the Eastland Disaster have been commemorated with plaques and plays, and the Chicago Fire Academy has been built on the site of Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, where the Chicago Fire supposedly began. But there is no plaque, marker or memorial for the greatest single-building fire in American history. On December 30, 1903, a fire was responsible for the deaths of at least 604 people. While the audience enjoyed a matinee performance of the play, “Mr. Bluebeard,” an arc light set fire to a curtain. Following the “Chicago way,” inspectors were bribed, fire codes were sidestepped and the supposedly fireproof building sparked up like a Roman candle on crystal meth. Patrons who tried to escape found the doors and windows of the theater locked to keep patrons from “sneaking in” without paying. Those that could be pried opened inward, and people running for the doors were soon trampled to death. Others tried to crawl over corpses stacked ten deep to get out while those on the upper floors jumped three floors to their deaths in the alley below. Because the vents had been nailed shut to keep out the winter snow, no smoke could be seen for more than fifteen minutes. By the time the fire department came, it was too late. The façade of the Iroquois was used to build the old Oriental Theater, which was closed in 1981. Today, the renovated Ford Center stands on the site. The alley directly behind the theater runs east from State between Randolph and Lake and is known as “Death’s Alley.” Supposedly haunted by ghosts, spirits and poltergeists, it’s a frequent spot for Ursula Bielski’s Chicago Ghost Tours. Otherwise, this site of so much tragedy has been completely built over, whitewashed, and forgotten in a city that does not remember its past, and continues to repeat its mistakes.
The Iroquois Theatre site, 24 West Randolph
Best of Chicago 2012