April 18, 1924 was a Friday. At 7:30 in the evening, a passerby noticed smoke coming from Curran Hall, a massive four-story brick building at 1363 South Blue Island Avenue. The man ran to the corner fire-alarm box and pulled the lever.
Two miles to the west, at Engine Company #107, fireman Francis Leavy was washing a window. The call came in and Leavy rushed out with the rest of the company. He told the captain he’d finish the window when they got back.
Five squads converged on Curran Hall. The blaze seemed to be minor. The firemen were getting it under control when one of the outer walls began buckling. Then it collapsed, trapping eight men.
The falling wall knocked out electrical power at the site. Portable lighting was brought in, while firemen combed the wreckage for their comrades. But all eight men had been killed. Among the dead was Francis Leavy.
It was later determined that Curran Hall had been deliberately torched for the insurance. The building owners were tried and convicted of the crime.
Now for the rest of the story . . .
The day after the fire, one of the men at Engine Company #107 noticed the window that Leavy had left half-washed.
Each workday, Chicago’s commuter railroads transport over 200,000 people, safely and without incident. This is one day it didn’t happen that way.
The story takes place on the line now known as the Metra Electric. At approximately 7:25 a.m., northbound Illinois Central train #416 overshot the 27th Street station. The train was made up of four new, double-deck, lightweight cars. The engineer stopped the train and began backing up.
Three minutes behind, train #720 was moving down the tracks at 40 mph. This was an express, with six older, single-level cars of heavy steel. When the first train passed the station, it had tripped a block signal, indicating that the track was clear. Coming through the morning fog, the engineer of #720 saw the leading train too late.
The front car of #720 slammed into the rear of #416, and smashed straight through, before grinding to a halt on the tracks. People screamed. Those who could scrambled for exits doors.
When I was a kid in the 1950s, a 300-foot-high circular metal cage loomed over the Six Corners shopping center. Technically, the structure was referred to as a gas holder. We simply called it the giant gas tank.
The tank was used for storing natural gas. At one time there were dozens of them scattered about the city and suburbs. The biggest one was located near Kedzie and Pratt. Built in 1926, it was 362 feet high, 254 feet in diameter, and held over 15 million cubic feet of natural gas.
The giant gas tanks could be found throughout the world. In some countries they were known as gasometers. Here in America, they were most prominent in St. Louis — one reason the 1930s Cardinals were nicknamed The Gas House Gang.
My friends and I were always a little bit wary of the giant gas tanks. We’d seen the movie White Heat, in which Jimmy Cagney meets his end in a colossal explosion atop an industrial fuel tank. It didn’t matter that Cagney had been at an oil refinery, and not on a natural gas tank. It didn’t matter that Peoples Gas assured us their tanks were totally safe.
Maybe they got the idea from Atlanta, which had just staged a grand premiere for Gone With the Wind.
The year was 1940, and the businessmen of the State Street Council were looking for ways to promote Chicago. It was decades before anybody would – or could – call the Midwest “flyover country.” Yet to many people on the East or West coasts, Chicago was simply the place where you had to change trains.
So now Chicago would host its own Hollywood premiere. And if that little Southern town had gotten GWTW, Chicago would get Cecil B. DeMille.
DeMille was Hollywood’s greatest showman, known for his historical blockbusters. His latest movie was an epic of the Canadian Mounties called North West Mounted Police. The stars were Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carroll, supported by the customary cast of thousands.
Take a ride out to the far end of the Brown Line. You pass Western Avenue, cross the river, and now the train is running on the ground, in an alley behind two-flats and large apartment buildings. You’re in Community Area #14, Albany Park.
The first permanent settlers arrived here in the 1840s. They were mostly German and Swedish farmers. William Spikings was among them. He built a brick farm house with his own hands and lived in it for over 70 years, watching the city grow out to him.
These early settlements were part of the Town of Jefferson. After Chicago annexed the town in 1889, the developers moved in. One of them called his subdivision Albany Park, after his native city in New York state. The name stuck.
Electric streetcars ran on Lawrence Avenue as early as 1896. The real breakthrough came with the arrival of the "L" line — then known as the Ravenswood branch — in 1907.
On this date 103 years ago, Chicago saw one of its strangest events. English evangelist Gypsy Smith led a march through the city’s notorious Levee.
Rodney Smith really was a Romani – a gypsy. By 1909 he’d become a famous and respected preacher on three continents. Now he was conducting a revival at the Armory on Wentworth at 34th Street.
The Levee was Chicago’s red-light district, centered around 22nd (Cermak) and State. Prostitution was supposed to be illegal in the city. But officials had always allowed the brothels to operate, as long as they remained clustered in one area.
A few days before, Smith had announced he would lead a march through the Levee. So on this evening, when he finished his sermon at the Armory, he quietly walked out the front door, and started heading north on Wentworth. The 3,000 people in his congregation followed.
They walked silently, earnestly. Men and women, young and old, all races, all levels of society. Every so often, Smith would turn to face the group and walk backward while preaching to them.