The Bell of the Great Chicago Fire II

Thanks, B.D., for passing along these dramatic details about the Great Chicago Fire and the courthouse bell!

Donald L. Miller, author of City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, explains the particulars. He does it so well, no need for me to paraphrase.

Note the name of the watchman/bell ringer! Schaffer! I am no stranger to the feeling he must have had during the blazing fire “If you would have just listened to me, we wouldn’t have gotten in this mess!” [The second time, of course, after correcting the initial mistake.] Maybe that sentiment runs in the family.

In the summer of 1871 the city had just finished installing a new network of fire-alarm boxes. These automatic signal devices were supposed to be simple to operate and completely reliable. “One pull at a hook,” said a fire official, “gives the signal with unerring accuracy.” To prevent people from turning in false alarms, the 172 numbered boxes were locked, the keys entrusted to responsible citizens in nearby residences and businesses.

This up-to-date electrical system was supplemented by a medieval-like fire watch. A watchman was on duty around the clock on the high cupola of the “fireproof” courthouse, and each fire station had its own observation tower. When a fire was sighted and reported to the central-alarm-system operator at the courthouse, he set the eleven-thousand-pound courthouse bell tolling with an electrical apparatus and sent a signal identifying the fire box closest to the blaze to all the engine companies in the city.

Around 9:00 p.m., October 8, the watchman Matthias Schafer, on duty in the courthouse tower, saw flames on the West Side of the city through the screen of smoke created by the coal fires along the river. Looking through his spyglass, he located the fire near Canalport Avenue and Halsted Street and called down through a voicebox to William J. Brown, night operator at the central-fire-alarm telegraph office on the first floor of the courthouse, to strike box 342. Within seconds, the courthouse bell began booming its alarm over the sleeping city, and hose companies set out for Halsted Street.

As Schaffer continued to watch the fire, however, he realized that he had mislocated it by a mile or so and told Brown to strike the correct box, number 319. Brown refused, claiming that this might confuse the fire companies and that they would pass the fire, anyway, on their way to box 342. William Brown’s stupid blunder helped doom Chicago.

2 thoughts on “The Bell of the Great Chicago Fire II

  1. According to David Cowan, in his book “Great Chicago Fires” ©2001, the Saturday Night Fire, a “17 hour battle had taken an enormous toll on both men and equipment.” It also “severely depleted the department’s supply of coal needed to power it’s pumping steamers. Brown’s decision was based on concerns for an over-stretched fire department. By the time Schaffer called for the correction, other companies were already responding to the fire. The Chicago Fire Department was not equipped to contend with the conflagration, given the winds and abundent, dry fuel. William J. Brown was completely exonerated afterwards. It hardly seems fair to blame him for stupidly dooming the city.

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