Denis Joseph "Denny" Swenie (1834-1903) served as a
fire fighter for fifty years, and was fire chief for
of those years. Appointed by mayor John Roche, Swenie was the first fire chief to receive a pay
check from the city. Swenie would serve for
six mayors in all, three democrats and two
was said about him that his only hobby was fire
fighting, that he ate and slept fire. “Persons could
tell by looking at the little house in Pierce
street, where the chief lived for thirty-five years,
whether there was a fire in the city. If the chief’s
buggy and horse stood in front of the house there
was no fire. If it was gone, all who passed by knew
that Denis Swenie was away somewhere fighting fire.”
Swenie came to Chicago from Scotland at age fourteen.
While working in the harness trade, he served as a
volunteer fireman until 1849. He became hose boy
on No. 3, stationed at Wells & Kinzie streets.
He moved up through the ranks with numerous
commendations and in 1873 became Chicago's first
assistant fire marshal. Six years later he was promoted to chief
by Carter Harrison Sr., replacing Mathias Benner.
1853 he married an Irish immigrant, Martha Toner,
who came to America the same year as Denis, 1846.
They had six children, three boys and three girls.
Martha lost her namesake the same year that Denis
died, 1903, and her youngest son, Joseph, in 1910.
Chief Swenie's death came eight
months before he and Martha would have celebrated
their 50th wedding anniversary.
Swenie was credited with saving
five blocks of buildings in the Great Chicago fire.
He was respected and beloved by his men and the
citizens of Chicago.
A fire in 1879 brought together
Campion. Swenie and a team
went into fight ground fire at the Empire warehouse
on Quincy street while Campion, then captain of No.
1, played water overhead. The large iron door
through which they entered the warehouse suddenly
blew shut, and they could not open it. Outside
Musham grabbed a sledge hammer and beat down the
door, freeing them in the nick of time.
Children of fire
Children of Chicago fire
chiefs Campion, Swenie and Musham all became caught up in newspaper stories.
In an odd coincidence, all three men had a son named
Frank but only Frank Campion made the news.
Two of Denny's sons worked on the department. Frank
W. Swenie (1863-), his eldest, worked in the alarm
office. James J. Swenie (1869-), his second son,
worked as a clerk in the Fire Marshal's office.
Neither were involved in scandal other than during
the last days of their father's time as chief when
some suggested the department was packed with Swenie
relatives. Besides the two sons, Martha
Swenie's nephew was a fireman.
Frank eventually became chief operator of the fire
alarm and telegraph division in the department of
gas and electricity.