What you probably didn't know about the Great Chicago Fire

October 7, 2011

The 140th Anniversary of the Chicago Fire is this Saturday. Not-so-coincidentally, Lookingglass Theatre Company's production of The Great Fire is running at the same time. WBEZ asked a member of the crew, and amateur history buff, Ari Clouse to tell us a bit about the production and what we might not know about the fire that shaped Chicago history.

My favorite moments working run crew for Lookingglass Theatre's The Great Fire are when I'm up in the catwalk. Hiding in the dark, dressed in all black, I drop "cinders" -- little red pieces of felt-- on the stage, cued by the stage manager, Kathleen, on headset. I get a great view of the entire theater up there, so once I've grown weary of seeing the same scene performance after performance, I watch a different one -- the audience's reaction. The play is based on real people and events that occurred during Chicago's greatest disaster. Throughout previews and opening, there's been one character who is a clear crowd favorite: James Hildreth (excuse me, Alderman James Hildreth), played with relish by Cheryl Lynn Bruce.

Hildreth's story is compelling because he's a total badass. He single-handedly devised a mission to create a fire line to keep the flames from reaching and destroying the southern part of the city. It's a noble cause, to be sure, but it's the execution that really astounds. Hildreth's plan: blow up entire streets' worth of buildings to beat the fire at its own game. The ashen rubble from the intentional explosions would deprive the fire of fuel and stop it in its tracks without anything to burn. Basically his plan was to destroy the city before the fire could, no big deal. Let me point out that in 1871, the only thing available to blow stuff up with was gunpowder. This is part of why Hildreth's character is so popular--it takes a certain kind of person to run around with a hundred kegs of gunpowder when the sky is raining fire in every direction. I wanted to see what the real Hildreth had to say about his experiences fighting The Great Fire with, well, more fire. Thanks to director/playwright John Musial's extensive research (the script has four pages of Works Cited endnotes to look through), I knew I had to find the city's official Inquiry into the Cause of the Chicago Fire. Anyone can find the transcript of the Inquiry at the Chicago History Museum's Research Center. On Wednesdays, it's open until 4:30pm, which is fortuitous because my call at the theater is at 5 o'clock.

It was a while after the fire started in the O'Leary's barn on DeKoven street late on Sunday, October 8, 1871 (true story, although we'll never know if it was the fault of the cow for sure) that Hildreth suspected that the conflagration was getting worse and out of the firefighters' control. According to his official testimony, he found the fire marshal and told him of his demolition idea, but "the marshal felt as though the blowing up of the buildings was a matter that he did not understand," probably because it was a totally counter-intuitive firefighting method, proposed by a total stranger. Our man Hildreth could not be discouraged, however, and he eventually got permission--and the gunpowder--for his stunt from the mayor, Roswell B. Mason. The fire had crossed the river at that point, and was spreading faster with every passing minute. Mayor Mason desperately told Hildreth, "Go on and do something!"

So Hildreth took action, in the most kickass way imaginable. He gathered up anyone who seemed willing to help him collect the kegs and distribute them--a difficult task because "the word 'powder' was a terror" to most people he came across. To protect the gunpowder from the continuous shower of cinders and coals, Hildreth used his coat to cover the kegs "if we had time," and went about his business of destruction. He smashed the kegs in with his own foot to effectively spread the powder around. When he couldn't find anyone to give him fuses, he rolled his own out of pieces of paper, sprinkled gunpowder on them, lit them up, and ran away. Hildreth blew up about thirty to forty buildings in this manner during the Great Chicago Fire. He couldn't pin down an exact number and admitted that he "drank more than the firemen did" the entire evening. Hildreth was apparently such a pyrotechnics expert that he offered his (unsolicited) advice on how he would blow up the very building his hearing was conducted in--always put the powder on the first floor, never the basement. As to the effectiveness of his methods, Hildreth said his work spoke for himself: "If you went through and noticed...the buildings were thrown flat to the ground, and the flames and everything were smothered together in the debris." Whether or not Hildreth actually did much to stop the fire is unclear. While much of the South Division of the city was spared, it's more likely to be due to the weather--the wind simply wasn't blowing the fire in that direction. Although Hildreth's story is undeniably awesome, this may be the reason it's not often a part of the general historical Great Fire narrative.

In our production of The Great Fire, the actors carry around small barrel kegs with "GUNPOWDER" spray-painted on them. They are apparently so realistic that a terror threat was called into the FBI after they were spotted in the back seat of the assistant prop designer's car parked near the John Hancock Building, where Lookingglass's administrative offices are located. While it resulted in a bit of a tense situation, the misunderstanding was cleared up quickly--they are entirely fake props, and while gunpowder worked for Hildreth in 1871, it isn't usually anyone's first choice for effective destruction in our time. I won't reveal how we dramatize Hildreth's explosions in the play, partially because I don't want to spoil the trick, but I also couldn't tell you what it looks like because I never see it. My fellow run crew member Todd and I "set off" the trick, and then, like Hildreth himself did 140 years ago, run to get the hell out of the way.

For more reading, check out:

City of Chicago. "James Hildreth Testimony." Inquiry into Cause of Chicago Fire and Actions of Fire Department Therein, December 1871. Vol. 3, pp. 123-. Transcribed by Richard F. Bales in 2002.

Musial, John. The Great Fire. 2011. Adapted/revised from original 1999 script and production.

Ari Clouse received her B.A. in History from the University of Chicago in 2010. She has been a non-Equity stage manager in Chicago for the past five years. Her days are spent in libraries and her nights are spent in theaters.