WBEZ | Alderman James Hildreth http://www.wbez.org/tags/alderman-james-hildreth Latest from WBEZ Chicago Public Radio en What you probably didn't know about the Great Chicago Fire http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-10-07/what-you-probably-didnt-know-about-great-chicago-fire-92890 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2011-October/2011-10-06/greatfire1.jpg" alt="" /><p><p><em>The 140th Anniversary of the Chicago Fire is this Saturday. Not-so-coincidentally, Lookingglass Theatre Company's production of </em>The Great Fire<em> is running at the same time. WBEZ asked a member of the crew, and amateur history buff, <a href="http://ariclouse.tumblr.com/">Ari Clouse</a> to tell us a bit about the production and what we might not know about the fire that shaped Chicago history.</em></p><p>My favorite moments working run crew for Lookingglass Theatre's&nbsp;<a href="http://lookingglasstheatre.org/content/box_office/the_great_fire"><em>The Great Fire</em></a>&nbsp;are when&nbsp;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&nbsp;up there, so once I've grown weary of seeing the same scene performance after performance, I watch a&nbsp;different one -- the audience's reaction. The play is based on real people and events that occurred&nbsp;during Chicago's greatest disaster. Throughout previews and opening, there's been one character who is&nbsp;a clear crowd favorite: James Hildreth (excuse me, Alderman James Hildreth), played with relish by&nbsp;Cheryl Lynn Bruce.</p><p style="text-align: center;"><img alt="" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2011-October/2011-10-06/greatfire1.jpg" title="Lookingglass' 'The Great Fire' (Photo by Sean Williams)" width="500" height="333"></p><p>Hildreth's story is compelling because he's a total badass. He single-handedly devised a mission&nbsp;to create a fire line to keep the flames from reaching and destroying the southern part of the city. It's a&nbsp;noble cause, to be sure, but it's the execution that really astounds. Hildreth's plan: blow up entire&nbsp;streets' worth of buildings to beat the fire at its own game. The ashen rubble from the intentional&nbsp;explosions would deprive the fire of fuel and stop it in its tracks without anything to burn. Basically his&nbsp;plan was to destroy the city before the fire could, no big deal. Let me point out that in 1871, the only&nbsp;thing available to blow stuff up with was gunpowder. This is part of why Hildreth's character is so&nbsp;popular--it takes a certain kind of person to run around with a hundred kegs of gunpowder when the&nbsp;sky is raining fire in every direction. I wanted to see what the real Hildreth had to say about his&nbsp;experiences fighting The Great Fire with, well, more fire. Thanks to director/playwright John Musial's&nbsp;extensive research (the script has four pages of Works Cited endnotes to look through), I knew I had to&nbsp;find the city's official Inquiry into the Cause of the Chicago Fire. Anyone can find the transcript of the&nbsp;Inquiry at the Chicago History Museum's Research Center. On Wednesdays, it's open until 4:30pm,&nbsp;which is fortuitous because my call at the theater is at 5 o'clock.</p><p>It was a while after the fire started in the O'Leary's barn on DeKoven street late on Sunday,&nbsp;October 8, 1871 (true story, although we'll never know if it was the fault of the cow for sure) that&nbsp;Hildreth suspected that the conflagration was getting worse and out of the firefighters' control.&nbsp;According to his official testimony, he found the fire marshal and told him of his demolition idea,&nbsp;but "the marshal felt as though the blowing up of the buildings was a matter that he did not&nbsp;understand," probably because it was a totally counter-intuitive firefighting method, proposed by a total&nbsp;stranger. Our man Hildreth could not be discouraged, however, and he eventually got permission--and&nbsp;the gunpowder--for his stunt from the mayor, Roswell B. Mason. The fire had crossed the river at that&nbsp;point, and was spreading faster with every passing minute. Mayor Mason desperately told&nbsp;Hildreth, "Go on and do something!"</p><p>So Hildreth took action, in the most kickass way imaginable. He gathered up anyone who&nbsp;seemed willing to help him collect the kegs and distribute them--a difficult task because "the&nbsp;word 'powder' was a terror" to most people he came across. To protect the gunpowder from the&nbsp;continuous shower of cinders and coals, Hildreth used his coat to cover the kegs "if we had time," and&nbsp;went about his business of destruction. He smashed the kegs in with his own foot to effectively spread&nbsp;the powder around. When he couldn't find anyone to give him fuses, he rolled his own out of pieces of&nbsp;paper, sprinkled gunpowder on them, lit them up, and ran away. Hildreth blew up about thirty to forty&nbsp;buildings in this manner during the Great Chicago Fire. He couldn't pin down an exact number and&nbsp;admitted that he "drank more than the firemen did" the entire evening. Hildreth was apparently such a&nbsp;pyrotechnics expert that he offered his (unsolicited) advice on how he would blow up the very building&nbsp;his hearing was conducted in--always put the powder on the first floor, never the basement. As to the&nbsp;effectiveness of his methods, Hildreth said his work spoke for himself: "If you went through and&nbsp;noticed...the buildings were thrown flat to the ground, and the flames and everything were smothered&nbsp;together in the debris." Whether or not Hildreth actually did much to stop the fire is unclear. While&nbsp;much of the South Division of the city was spared, it's more likely to be due to the weather--the wind&nbsp;simply wasn't blowing the fire in that direction. Although Hildreth's story is undeniably awesome, this&nbsp;may be the reason it's not often a part of the general historical Great Fire narrative.</p><p>In our production of <em>The Great Fire</em>, the actors carry around small barrel kegs&nbsp;with "GUNPOWDER" spray-painted on them. They are apparently so realistic that a terror threat was&nbsp;called into the FBI after they were spotted in the back seat of the assistant prop designer's car parked&nbsp;near the John Hancock Building, where Lookingglass's administrative offices are located. While it&nbsp;resulted in a bit of a tense situation, the misunderstanding was cleared up quickly--they are entirely&nbsp;fake props, and while gunpowder worked for Hildreth in 1871, it isn't usually anyone's first choice for&nbsp;effective destruction in our time. I won't reveal how we dramatize Hildreth's explosions in the play,&nbsp;partially because I don't want to spoil the trick, but I also couldn't tell you what it looks like because I&nbsp;never see it. My fellow run crew member Todd and I "set off" the trick, and then, like Hildreth himself&nbsp;did 140 years ago, run to get the hell out of the way.</p><p><em>For more reading, check out:</em></p><p>City of Chicago. "James Hildreth Testimony." Inquiry into Cause of Chicago Fire and Actions of Fire&nbsp;Department Therein, December&nbsp;1871. Vol. 3, pp. 123-. Transcribed by Richard F. Bales in 2002.</p><p>Musial, John. <em>The Great Fire</em>. 2011. Adapted/revised from original 1999 script and production.</p><p><em>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.&nbsp;</em></p><div>&nbsp;</div></p> Fri, 07 Oct 2011 15:00:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-10-07/what-you-probably-didnt-know-about-great-chicago-fire-92890