Friday, June 5, 2020

June 5, 1946 -- La Salle Hotel Fire
June 5, 1946 --  Just after midnight fire breaks out at the La Salle Hotel at the intersection of La Salle and Madison Street.  Before morning 61 people will be dead, including Battalion Chief Eugene T. Freemon of the Chicago Fire Department’s First Battalion.  Thirty more people are hospitalized and over 200 others sustain injuries.   Although the exact cause of the fire will never be identified, it originates behind the walls or above the false ceiling of the Silver Grill Cocktail Lounge just off the hotel lobby.  There is a delay in summoning the fire department as hotel employees attempt to put down the flames with seltzer water and sand.  The fire, feeding on the varnished wood paneling of the lounge, quickly spreads to the two-story hotel lobby, and the second-floor balcony that overlooks it.  The fire department receives its first call at 12:35 a.m., and within minutes of the first units arriving  the fire is upgraded to a 5-11 alarm, summoning more than 300 firefighters to the hotel.  At this point the fire had moved through two open staircases to the third, fourth and fifth floors, and smoke had begun to fill the entire 22-story building.  Doors planned for these stairways had never been installed, and the stairways become chimneys, sucking smoke into the upper floors.  Firefighters save guests on lower floors with ladders while guests on the upper floors have to move in the dark down fire escapes.  Most guests are asleep when the fire breaks out, and the majority of those who lose their lives probably die of smoke inhalation in the early stages of the disaster.  During that time the night manager tells the hotel’s switchboard operator, Julia C. Berry, to leave the building, but she refuses and dies at her post after alerting scores of guests.  The devastating event prompts the Chicago City Council to enact new hotel building codes and fire-fighting procedures, including the installation of automatic alarm systems and instructions of fire safety inside hotel rooms.  The hotel underwent a $2 million renovation after the fire and continued to operate until it was razed in July of 1976, making way for what is today the Two North La Salle building.

June 5, 1944 –There are probably better times to bring this up … but … it is on this day in 1944 that the Fort Sheridan baseball team beats the Chicago White Sox in an exhibition game, 8 to 6.  The Sox have a 6 to 1 lead after the team’s half of the fifth inning, but the Army team scores three runs on two hits, an error and two walks in the sixth, adding an insurance run in the seventh, going on to score three more times in the eighth inning.  Left fielder Guy Curtright and first baseman Ed Carnett are the only regular Sox players to take the field while pitcher Joe Haynes, making his second appearance of the season, holds the Fort Sheridan nine to one hit through the sixth inning. Three thousand soldiers and guests watch the game.  The above photos show the entrance to the fort at the time of the game and as it appears today -- as the Town of Fort Sheridan.

June 5, 1942 – The United States Naval Training station at Great Lakes opens its doors for the first time to African-American recruits bound for active duty as apprentice seamen and firemen aboard warships. The first of the recruits, Doreston Luke Carmen, Jr., a 19-year-old, one of nine children from a Galveston, Texas family, is sworn in on this day after his first train trip. “I like the Navy fine already,” he says. “Last night I slept in a hammock for the first time and didn’t fall out.” [Chicago Daily Tribune, June 6, 1942] The commandant of the station, Lieutenant Commander Daniel W. Armstrong, says that he will wait until all 50 recruits have arrived before issuing them regulation uniforms and sending them through the classification office. The Navy opened all ratings to African-American sailors from the time of the Civil War until 1922, but from that date until 1936 the Navy ended the policy. In 1936 that policy was reversed, but African-American sailors were only posted as mess attendants.

June 5, 1897 – A “mud scow” being towed by the tug Andrew Green explodes by the Rush Street bridge at 2:00 a.m., killing the lone crewman on board.  Thousands of windows along the river are broken with damage reaching as far as the Newberry Library, which has nearly all of its plate glass windows shattered.  The ship belonged to the A. H. Green Dredging Company and had been working on dredging the South Branch near the Bridgeport Gas Works.  One theory is that dynamite being used in hardpan during dredging operations may have found its way into the hold of the boat and exploded without warning.  Hundreds of people, roused from sleep by the tremendous blast, head to the docks and streets along the river near the scene.  Many of them rush to the scene on bicycles, only to see their tires flattened by the glass.  The wheelman for the steamer City of Traverse, moored directly opposite the scene of the explosion, says that “a bluish flame shot up for at least a distance of fifteen feet and was followed loosely by the explosion.  The scow heaved forward and then split from stem to stern and went to the bottom.” [Chicago Daily Tribune, June 4, 1897]. The direction of the explosion was toward the north, and the concussion caves in part of the walls of the warehouse of the Western Transit Company, where 300 dock laborers are at work, with many of them blown over by the explosion.  The report travels as far north as Lincoln Park where glass fragments cover the sidewalks.  It is even heard clearly in South Chicago where the men in the town's police station run out of the building, thinking that a powder factory across the state line in Indiana had exploded.  All of the broken windows offer an easy target for thieves, and police flood the area to guard against looting.  The lone crewman on the stricken vessel, August Komerika, disappears beneath the water and is feared lost.  Miraculously, with all of the traffic near the busiest bridge on the river, no one else is killed although a crew from the life saving station rescues one man from the river.  The above post card shows the vicinity of the Rush Street bridge at the time ... one can only imagine the carnage that would have resulted if the scow had exploded during the daylight hours.

June 5, 1893 – The Chicago Daily Tribune features a short article that summarizes the recollections of James Whistler Wood of Marshall, Michigan regarding the first sailing vessel to reach what would become the Port of Chicago.  According to Wood the first vessel to drop anchor at the mouth of the Chicago River was the schooner Tracy in the year 1803.  The ship was either “owned or chartered by the government, and conveyed Capt. John Whistler, U. S. A., and his command, together with supplies and material for the construction of a fort at the mouth of the Chicago River.”  [Chicago Daily Tribune, June 5, 1893] The first steamships to arrive in Chicago, according to Wood, were the Sheldon Thompson and the William Penn that “stirred the waters of Chicago harbor and arrived there together on July 8, 1831, having on board Gen. Winfield Scott and soldiers for the Black Hawk war.” When these two ships arrived, the small hamlet could still “boast of only five houses, and three of those were built of logs.”  The portrait above is of Captain John Whistler, who was born in Ulster in 1756, ran away from home and fought with the British Army in the Revolutionary War, then settled in Hagerstown, Maryland before joining the United States Army.  Severely wounded in 1791 in the Indian Wars, he commanded the military settlement at Fort Dearborn when it was established in 1803.

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