The Cold Storage Building at the Columbian Exposition was constructed by the Hercules Iron Works of Chicago and was built to showcase the very latest in ice-making machinery (often called, "the greatest refrigerator on earth.") It was located at 64th Street and Stoney Island, five stories high and featured a 100 feet high tower at each corner plus a central tower covering the smoke-stack that soared 220 feet in the air. There was even an in-door ice skating rink. It was just one of the marvels of the Fair. It was also the site of the Columbian Expositions greatest tragedy.
"On the tenth of July , while the Fair was in progress, the Cold Storage warehouse was destroyed by fire. This building was designed to manufacture ice by artificial means, and was intended as an exhibit of ice-making machinery, as well as a place to store perishable materials. Notwithstanding its prosaic purposes it was a beautiful building and attracted much attention, especially the tall, square tower which rose to twice the height of the main structure. Unfortunately the tower had been utilized as a smoke stack, which ran through its center, and in this originated the fire which proved so disastrous to human life. After the arrival of the Fire Department, twenty men, members of the first company on the scene, headed by Captain James Fitzpatrick, ascended the tower to reach the blazing portion, when suddenly it was discovered that the fire had broken out far below them, and had cut off their retreat by the stairway. There was no escape except by leaping from the tower to the main roof. This they did, one at a time, before the eyes of a horrified throng of thousands of spectators. Several of the firemen broke through the roof by the force of their falls, and were plunged into the seething mass of flames within the building, which had become a roaring maelstrom of fire. Others were too much injured by their fall to move and could not escape. Captain [James]Fitzpatrick, in a dying condition, was lowered to the ground by some of the firemen on the roof, who themselves had scarcely descended before the entire roof fell in. Seventeen men were killed, and nineteen injured in this disaster, the only serious one occurring during the Fair period. Except in this case no fire or other catastrophe took place upon the Exposition grounds.
"A subscription was at once started among the spectators for the relief of the families of the unfortunate victims. The gate receipts of the Fair for one day were applied towards the fund, which soon reached a total of $104,000. A portion of this fund was used to relieve immediate distress, and the remainder was invested and the income devoted to the support of the widows and the education of their children.
"Doubtless the thorough preparations made in the Fire Department and by the Columbian Guards saved the Exposition from other serious disasters. "Incipient fires were frequent," says the History, "and often more than once in a day the scene would be enlivened by the spirited dash of an engine across the Court of Honor, and the Columbian Guards coming on the 'double quick' in fine order from all directions to the point of danger."
Richard Watson Gilder, the poet, wrote a couple of verses on the Cold Storage disaster, which he entitled, "The Tower of Flame:"
"Here for the world to see men brought their fairest;
Whatever of beauty is in all the earth:
The priceless flower of art, the loveliest, rarest,
Here by our inland ocean came to glorious birth.
"Yet on this day of doom a strange new splendor
Shed its celestial light on all men's eyes;
Flower of hero-soul,—consummate, tender,—
That from the tower of flame sprang to the eternal skies."
From: Chicago: Its History and Its Builders, a Century of Marvelous Growth
by Josiah Seymour Currey (1912)
Photo Credit: MagazineArt.org