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Great Chicago Fires: Historic Blazes That Shaped a City (Illinois) [Paperback]

by David Cowan
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 26, 2001 1893121070 978-1893121072 1
"the hand of God and the lack of fire escapes"

In 1916, poet Carl Sandburg wrote about a young girl who jumps to her death in a Chicago factory fire, attributing her tragic end to "the hand of God and the lack of fire escapes." Sadly, the lesson of Anna Imroth's untimely demise would go unheeded.Instead, thousands of times in Chicago and elsewhere, the circumstances of her loss would be repeated.

Perhaps no other city in America identifies itself with fire quite like Chicago does; certainly no other city cites a great conflagration as the cornerstone of its will and identity. Yet the Great Chicago Fire was not the only infamous blaze the city would see. Rather, as Chicago changed from agrarian outpost to industrial giant, it would be visited time and again by some of the worst infernos in American history-fires that sparked not only banner headlines but, more importantly, critical upgrades in fire safety laws across the globe.

In Great Chicago Fires, acclaimed author and veteran firefighter David Cowan tells the story of the other "great" Chicago fires, noting the causes, consequences, and historical context of each-from the burning of Fort Dearborn in 1812 to the Iroquois Theater disaster to the Our Lady of the Angels school fire. He also explores lesser-known fires such as fatal tenement and flophouse blazes that often underscore how poverty and poor living conditions set the stage for these urban catastrophes.

Along the way, Cowan follows the colorful evolution of Chicago's firefighting forces from early 19th-century citizen bucket brigades to the armada of the modern day fire department, lacing his narrative with the dangers of his profession, including a vivid account of the worst day in American fire service history when twenty-one firefighters died battling a fire at Chicago's Union Stockyards.

In transporting readers beyond the fireline and into the ruins, Cowan brings readers up close to the heroism, awe, and devastation generated by the fires that shaped Chicago.

This book contains over 80 stunning historic photos.

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

David Cowan was born in Chicago in 1963. He co-authored (with John Kuenster) the critically acclaimed book about the Our Lady of the Angels school fire, To Sleep With the Angels: The Story of a Fire (Ivan R. Dee, Inc.). A U.S. Air Force veteran and former award-winning newspaper reporter, he holds degrees in journalism and political science from Southern Illinois University. Now a firefighter and independent journalist, Mr. Cowan has written for major newspapers and magazines and appeared in numerous television documentaries about historic fires. He lives in Chicago with his wife, writer and historian Ursula Bielski, and their daughter, Eva.

Product Details

  • Series: Illinois
  • Paperback: 169 pages
  • Publisher: Lake Claremont Press; 1 edition (July 26, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1893121070
  • ISBN-13: 978-1893121072
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 9.9 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #964,276 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Picture-Filled Overview of This Tragic Subject November 30, 2007
This book discusses such conflagrations as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Iroquois Theater Fire, Columbian Exposition Fire, Chicago Stockyards Fire, etc. The book is full of pictures, some of which have apparently not been published elsewhere.

The account of the Our Lady of the Angels School Fire is particularly engrossing. We learn about a troubled boy who probably set the fire. The fire burned for some time, unnoticed. Then the stairwell caught fire, sending smoke into the second-floor hallway, and trapping the children and teachers. Soon the hallway flashed over. So did the cockloft above the classrooms. Yet the firefighters heroically managed to pull at least 150 children, out of the windows, and out of the jaws of certain death. There are several photos of the recovery of the bodies after the fire.

Discussion of the McCormick Place Fire of 1967 includes a telling picture of the failed roof truss (p. 106). This served to remind us that steel in general, and long, unsupported steel trusses in particular, do poorly in large fires. (This later was a major factor in the collapse of the WTC towers on 911).

This book is not limited to spectacular, single fires. There is also discussion of several non-famous individual fires, as well as the many fires that were ignited during the 1960's race riots, especially following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A very good book February 1, 2013
Virtually everyone's heard of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that devastated the burgeoning city, but have you ever heard of 1910 Stockyards Fire that took the lives of 21 firefighters plus three civilians? How about the 1950 accident and fire involving a streetcar and gasoline tanker truck that incinerated the streetcar's driver and 32 passengers? How about the 1968 race riots, when rioting African-Americans (enraged at the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King) set fires, and then attacked responding fire fighters? Well, if you read this book you would know all about these!

Overall, I found this to be a very good book that covers a very wide range of interesting fires. It has a great deal of information on the various fires, and the text is written in an interesting manner. Also, along the way, the reader is treated to many great black-and-white photos.

[By the way, if you are interested, check out my Listmania! list, Death and Destruction in Illinois, for books on other Illinois disasters.]
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3.0 out of 5 stars fires August 24, 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A good overview of many fires in Chicago history that will prompt you to do more reading on the subjests.
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