was an essential part of stationary engineer Robert Murry's job at the
Iroquois. His ears told him almost as much as
his eyes about how a motor was running or a boiler was
On December 30, 1903, he had
been in the basement tending to a sewer pump and was
on his way back to the stage floor when he heard
thumps and unusual sounds. He instantly knew
they weren't the usual sounds of a theater.
He ran to the stage.
He would have noticed the
fire immediately because it created the brightest
light in the building. The auditorium and
stage were in darkness
Pale-Moonlight dance performance. His
eyes would have been drawn first to a display of moving lights
and shadows on the stage floor then up to flames in the loft above, leaping from one hanging drape
to the next. He would have heard the
crackling of the fire, greedily
consuming hundreds of scenery curtains. Then
fireman Saller's futile efforts with
Kilfyre tubes. Sallers straddled the rail of the south flybridge, about twelve feet up the proscenium wall, on
which stood the arc lamp that started the fire. Sallers was making hurling and striking motions with one
arm while holding on to the rail with the other
to keep from falling. Sallers tried desperately to force the powder in the Kilfyre can to reach further into the air toward the
flames, but it was
an impossible task. The fire was well above
his head and quickly spreading across the stage from one
hanging drape to the next.
the stage men shouted for someone to lower the fire
curtain. Robert looked to the other side of
the stage and in the glare of the flames could see
John Dougherty in the loft, frantically hauling in a
rope. Robert may have remembered that the
regular flyman in that station, Slim Seymour, had
been taken home sick and Dougherty was substituting.
The curtain started to drop but hung up on the north
William McMullen, Robert's youth and strength
gave him courage and stamina. Both men were everywhere during the
fire. Robert ran to help try to pull down the
fire curtain. When it
became apparent it was a hopeless task, he ran
back down to the basement and helped performers
and costume workers escape through the smoking room
that led to the front lobby and exit doors.†
When the smoke grew too heavy in the smoking room,
he led them to coal chutes and pushed them up and
out through manhole covers.
headed back toward the engine room, determined to
shut off the boilers, when he found aerialist Nellie Reed.
The young woman was severely burned, screaming and
clawing at a wall, presumably blinded, unable to
find her way out – one of the most haunting scenes
at the disaster. He led her
upstairs and handed her off to another stage worker
who took her outside. He ran back to the engine room
and turned off the boilers. By then, the smoke
was thick enough that he didn't dare go back up to
the stage. He grabbed his toolbox and climbed
up through the coal chute to safety.
Murry had worked for Davis at the
and throughout the final months of construction at
the Iroquois. He was more familiar than anyone
else with the placement, condition and operation of
fire stands, hoses and vents at the Iroquois.
His testimony on January 9 1904 before the coroner's
jury provided the best overall picture of what
equipment was present and what was not.
Biographical info about Robert Murry (1878-1950),
Iroquois Theater stationary engineer
During the Iroquois investigation, newspapers
spelled Robert's last name with the more common
spelling, Murray, but in city directories and in
fifty years of the U.S. Census it was reported as Murry, so
newspapers probably got it wrong.
Robert roomed with his older brother, Patrick
(Perry) C. Murry (1875-1937), at a boarding
house in 1900. Both were Iowa natives and both
worked as stationary engineers. They were
the sons of Edmund S. Murry (1850-1925) and
Ellen Murry (1855-1943).
Robert remained with the Iroquois until 1909
when it was named the Colonial.
By 1910, Robert had married Elsie Eyler (or
(1882-1929), had a son, and owned a summer resort
hotel in Momence, Illinois. By 1930 he was
operating a truck farm in Momence and widowed.
His father was gone by then too and Robert's brother, Alvie, and widowed mother, Ellen, lived with he
and his son, bookkeeper Edward Robert Murry
Robert, his parents, siblings, wife and son were
all buried in a
family plot at the Momence, IL cemetery.
Discrepancies and addendum
Why was Murry
so determined to close the boilers? Were they
in danger of exploding?
stairs did Murry use to lead Nellie Reed up to
ground level? The stairs next to the light control
panel or the spiral stair on the north side of the
stage? See floorplan at right. Why didn't he
use those same stairs to direct other cast members
to safety, instead of taking them through the
further east stairs off the smoking room and into
the lobby? Because the lobby was too packed
newspaper story the day after the fire mistakenly, I
think, credited a stagehand,
James Hamilton, with leading people out through
the coal chute. The story is almost identical to
Murray's, with Hamilton's name substituted.
The heating plant and other systems in an early
1900s theater were far from rudimentary.
Engineers and architects might appreciate this 1901
description of systems at the Colonial Theater
At the Iroquois, Murry
was responsible for three coal-fired 90hp steam boilers
thirty or so feet below the level of the sidewalk.
The L. H. Prentice Company advertised in the
hardbound Iroquois Theater book distributed on
Opening Night and may have been the subcontractor.
Prentice specialized in heating and
ventilating systems in commercial structures.
They were based out of Waukegan, WI but had offices
† At the
Iroquois, dressing rooms for headliners were on
multiple floors at the south side of the stage,
accessed by an elevator. Dressing rooms for
supernumeraries were in the basement, along with the
costume department, engine room and coal room.
Also in the basement was a smoking room for theater
patrons, accessed from the east side of the lobby. A second
door led to
basement dressing rooms, engine room, etc.
Iroquois Theater stage
carpenter Frank Barr
Assistant stage manager
Cummings Iroquois Theater stage carpenter
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