Mike Corrigan was near the
front of the fire house when he heard
tapping on the window pane.
Outside was a man gesturing toward the south, steam
coming from his mouth as he spoke in the freezing
cold temperatures. It was
John McCloskey, carpenter stagehand at the
nearby Iroquois Theater, sent by Iroquois fireman
Sallers. Corrigan let John inside and
got enough of his story to shout out, "The
Iroquois is on fire!"
Four of the firefighters on
hand at Engine Company 13 knew instantly that fire
at the Iroquois meant big trouble.
captain Jennings and
John Campion had all had discussions with
personnel at the Iroquois Theater about it being
inadequately equipped, and Jennings had talked about
it with battalion chief John
Engine 13 was first to reach
the Iroquois. During the engine's mad dash to
the scene, Corrigan drove chief Hannan's
buggy to the fire, with a stop at fire box #26
in front of the Sherman House Hotel to sound the
Newspaper reports about the
early alarms for the Iroquois Theater fire were
conflicting. By all accounts the first
alarm arrived at 3:30 and the official First Alarm,
from fire box #26 in front of the
Sherman House Hotel a half block from the
Iroquois Theater, sounded at 3:33.
What I have not yet ascertained to my satisfaction
is where the first still alarm came from. Was
it delivered to
Engine Company 13 by McCloskey or telephoned in from a cigar
store in the Real Estate building next to the
Iroquois? Wherever it came from it ended up in room 607 in City Hall, the department service center.
Thomas Noonan sent a ticket clerk,
Fred Brackenbush, to secure the Iroquois' cash
receipts at the
Best and Russell cigar store and there was court testimony about a call made
from the cigar store but it was not stated exactly
who made the call or when. Perhaps there were
dozens of still alarms but newspapers only reported
those mentioned during trial testimony, i.e., the
one from the stage worker at Engine House 13 and the
one from the cigar store at the corner of Randolph
and Dearborn in the
building (today known as the Delaware building).
According to court testimony,
1st assistant fire marshal Campion, whose office was at
Engine Company 13, didn't wait for a horse or buggy.
Campion had gone through the theater with business manager, Thomas Noonan, and
reminded him of the need to better equip the theater
for fire fighting.
When Campion heard the Iroquois was on fire, he ran
out the door of the fire house, down Dearborn
street, past the west side of the Iroquois, noting
there was smoke pouring from the roof, and was the
first fireman to enter the front hall of the
theater. He reported there was enough heat
that he felt certain the
fire had been going for longer than the three minutes that elapsed between the first still alarm and the First Alarm.
If Campion was right, and he certainly had the
experience chops to support his judgment, the delay
was while the stage workers tried to put out the
fire and McCloskey ran to the fire department.
In the fire department center
in room 607 in City Hall, incoming alarms were
translated and sent out to fire
houses as a "still alarm" (verbal
report received), followed a minute later
by a "First Alarm" (fire officially
and nine minutes later a "4-11 alarm"
Ten minutes later, a fire ball hurled out into the auditorium and melted watch works, fixing the time of death for many
at 3:50 pm. The five minutes or so lost before
the still alarms would have given more people time
to exit the auditorium. The death count on the
stairwells might have been higher but the total
number of fatalities would certainly have been
Engine 13 fire house at
209 N. Dearborn covered the northern section
of the business district adjacent to the
South Water street market and was considered
one of the most important firehouses serving
In 1905 this was one of the houses cited by
then assistant fire marshal Horan as
inadequate for the needs of fire fighters.
Thirteen men slept on the poorly
ventilated 15’ x 25’ second floor, with six
horses in the stable below. When it rained,
the stable flooded. Edison officially
donated the electricity and unofficially
donated the light fixtures that firemen
begged or pilfered and installed themselves.
at the Iroquois
According to testimony by
numerous Iroquois employees, there were no fire alarms inside the
Iroquois Theater. Business manager
Noonan testified that during the weeks leading up to
the fire he and Campion,
as well as representatives of the building
department, discussed installing fire alarms at both
the Illinois and the Iroquois.
According to Noonan, and verified
by the municipal electrical department,
as of December 30, 1903, alarm-installation applications were not submitted.
Cigar store from which came a phoned in alarm was a
half block from Iroquois
Things to learn
Was there a telephone at the Iroquois?
McCloskey travel directly from
the Iroquois stage to Engine House 13? (I don't
anticipate ever getting this answer.)
Biographical information about battalion
Engine 6 have been summoned in the First
Where to go? Was there a telephone at the
Since McCloskey could not
pull an alarm within the Iroquois, where was
he to go to alert the fire department? By some reports
there was a telephone in business manager Noonan's
office on the second floor at the Iroquois Theater but there was
nothing reported about Noonan calling the
If there was a phone in the
business office, did stage workers know about it?
McCloskey knew about the fire a few minutes before Noonan
so his decision to run two blocks to Engine House 13
is interesting. Perhaps he recognized it would be impossible to get through the
crowd in the front hall at the theater and that to reach the managers office he would have to
run half a block from the stage exit to the corner
of Randolph and Dearborn, another half block to the
entrance of the theater, force his way through
the crowd emerging from the entrance, run up the
stairwell and hope the manager had not left the
building and locked his office. Running two blocks down Dearborn likely did not
take much more time and was more certain. Did
McCloskey figure out all that in advance or did he first
try to make it to the phone in the business
manager's office? Might that have accounted
for some of the delay before the fire department
received the still alarm?
Fireman Corrigan would testify
that when McCloskey arrived at Engine House 13 he did not
seem particularly excited. If he fought
his way through the terrified crowd in the front
hall of the theater before heading to the fire
house, surely he would have been caught up in the
excitement and his adrenalin would have been
pumping. If, instead, he left the theater at
the beginning of the fire, he may have viewed his
action as an errand rather than as an act of life
saving. I initially imagined him running down
Dearborn as though chased by the hounds of hell but
his deportment upon arrival at the fire house
doesn't support that scenario. He wasn't a
fire fighter so cannot have fully appreciated the
severity of the situation. He was sent on the
errand by Sallers, a former fireman who doubled as a
doorkeeper, so McCloskey might not have had sufficient
regard for Sallers judgment. All that said,
McCloskey had worked in theaters for twenty years so
should have heard his share of theater fire stories.
Or maybe Corrigan just didn't read McCloskey
accurately. McCloskey returned to the theater
and helped rescue performers.
Thirty year old
(1873-1966) was one of
nine children born to Irish immigrants,
Peter and Margaret Corrigan. Mike was born
while his parents lived in Cleveland,
Ohio. The family moved to
Chicago around 1882. In 1910, as
captain of engine company 104, Corrigan
served as a pallbearer for Fire Chief Horan,
a victim of the stock yards fire. By
1918 Corrigan was a battalion chief of the
25th and by 1922 battalion chief of the 1st.
In 1905 he married Anastasia "Anna" with
whom he had six children. Michael
would go on to serve as the fire
commissioner for eighteen of his last
with the department. He continued to
participate in annual Iroquois Theater
memorial services for many decades after the
fire, pulling the alarm on Fire Box #26.
Various online sites
report that Corrigan was a rookie in 1903;
others that he was a ten-year veteran of the
department. According to the 1900 US
Census, he had been a fire fighter for at
least three years in 1903 and, according to
his obituary, he began his career in 1899.
At an annual gathering of the Iroquois
Memorial Association in 1934 Corrigan
described his experience upon arriving at
the actors coming out of the
stage entrance when we pulled up
in the alley. Persons were
crowded into the fire escape
landings leading from the
balcony and the gallery. Fire
was coming out of the balcony
exit. It was not enough flame to
make it dangerous to pass
through, but they were afraid.
Those above on the crowded
gallery escape landing would not
come down. Some of them were
jumping to the alley below. Two
of us started up with a hose. We
begged them to come down. They
refused. We had to use force. We
grabbed some of them and threw
them down the stairs, which were
four feet wide. After that, they
came down voluntarily, and in
good shape. On the lower balcony
landing, on the fire escape
where I was, the doors were
closed. Persons were wedged so
tightly against them that we
could not budget them more than
one foot. We went up to the top
landing, leading from the
gallery. We had to dig in to get
them out. If they had come down
the fire escape many more inside
could have gotten out. But they
stood there, afraid, piling on
top of each other, so that those
inside were trapped. After
clearing the top landing we got
to those inside. There they
were, toppled over like sardines
in a can. Some of them were
still screaming when we began
carrying them down. In all, we
carried down about 50 persons.
How many lived I do not known."
Patrick J. Jennings Jr
(1851-) went through the
theater a week after opening, shown around
by Iroquois fireman Sallers.
Jennings told Sallers, "If this
thing starts going, they will lynch you."
Sallers told him it was none of his (Sallers)
business. Jennings reported conditions to
battalion chief, John
Hannan, who said, "Well,
what can we do about it?"
Elizabeth in 1874. As of 1900, five of
their eight children were still living.
Jennings retired from the department in 1909
after a career of at least thirty years.
He was the son of Irish immigrants, Margaret
and Patrick J. Jennings.
John James Hannon
Hannan was shown
through the Iroquois by Sallers shortly before the fire and knew
that fire fighting
equipment was inadequate.
He asked Sallers if he had reported it and
Sallers said no, that it would be resented
by his superiors. Hannan said he did not
report his findings to Chief Musham because
he had not been instructed to make such
Like Musham, Hannan thought the building
department was the only entity with
authority to close a firetrap. Hannon
became assistant fire marshal in 1905
and retired in 1908. Born in 1851, he
was married to a Wisconsin girl, Sarah
MacIntyre, and they had five or six
children, of which four, aged thirteen to
twenty-one, were living in 1903.
Alarm boxes in 1903
Boxes in the early 1900s were
connected to a telegraph system. When triggered, a
wheel tapped out a signal that was sent to a
receiver, identifying the number of the sending box.
The bottom-most illustration
shows fire alarm box construction, on a Smith-brand
box. The illustration above that is a Gamewell, such
as dominated the market
by a large margin by
Fulkerson and Rothmann looked after city
William Sallers Iroquois
Denis Swenie Chicago's
beloved fire chief
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