A Look Back: 1910 Chicago Meat Packing Plant Fire Kills 21 People

The Union Stockyard, made famous in the movie The Jungle, was the setting to the worst fire service disaster in Illinois history. On December 22, 1910 at 4am a watchman reported a fire in the basement of a six-story refrigerated warehouse that stored cured meats, preserved with saltpeter, a main ingredient in gun powder. The floors and walls were soaked in grease and animal fats, causing the fire to spread rapidly.

Stockyard firefighters responded within minutes, but, due to the weather, the water supply was shut off to avoid freezing. By the time the firefighters found the water valves that fed the fire hydrants, the warehouse was engulfed in flames. The water supply was the first of several problems that hindered the fire fighting efforts. There were numerous obstacles surrounding the warehouse fire, preventing fire fighters from setting up their ladders. Railway cars, brick walls, and other warehouses were so closely surrounding the warehouse fire that it was impossible to stage the fire fighting equipment correctly. The obstacles prevented fire fighters from reaching the top floors of the six story warehouse.

The heat within the refrigerated warehouse caused the cold air to expand rapidly, and within an hour of the start of the fire, an explosion rocked the building. The entire six-story wall collapsed. Chief Fire Marshal James Horan, 2nd Assistant Chief Fire Marshal William Burroughs, three captains, four lieutenants, and twelve firefighters were killed instantly, eliminating the command team.

The fire fighting efforts were put on hold as the remaining fire fighters tried desperately to rescue their comrades. At the same time, a neighboring seven-story warehouse caught fire from the raining embers of the explosion.

First Assistant Chief Charles Seyferlich was now in command. He called in several special alarms, which sent 50 engine companies and hundreds of off-duty firefighters to the scene. For twenty-four hours the fire blazed until the firefighters finally extinguished it. Once extinguished, twenty-one fallen firefighters were found. The Union Stockyard Fire ranked as the third largest loss of firefighters in a single event in all of U.S. history.

To learn about current fire protection system options for warehouses, click here.