Chicago’s Ayer Building Fire: This Week in History

Sketch of the Ayer Building fire from the Chicago Tribune

Chicago’s Ayer Building Fire: This Week in History

Melina Druga
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A sketch of the Ayer Building fire from the Chicago Tribune
A sketch of the Ayer Building fire from the Chicago Tribune

“Horror in a Fire,” the headline on the Chicago Tribune read March 17, 1898, in reference to the destruction of the Ayer Building that was located on Wabash Avenue.

The fire started on the third floor of the business complex in the storehouse of wallpaper dealer Alfred Peats and within 10 minutes was a “furnace of flames” as fire shot upward through the light shaft that ran from the third to seventh floors and up to the roof.  It is believed a roll of wallpaper came in contact with a gas jet to start the fire.

A chemical company was housed on the seventh floor, and its products exploded.

More than 200 people, from eight businesses, were in the building.  When the fire alarm rang, some managed to escape via the dark, narrow steps or using the building’s two elevators.  Everyone else was forced by the inferno to the front and back of the building where they congregated on window ledges.

The building did have a fire escape on the northern side above the alley, but it measured only 18 inches wide.  The metal rungs blistered from heat, and many of the people trying to use the escape fell down to the nearest platform.  Those on the platform closest to the ground waited for help and, when none came, were forced to drop the rest of the way.

Flames Intensify

The heat caused the building’s glass to shatter, putting firemen in danger.

The combination of heat and explosions caused walls to collapse to the ground below, and the interior to drop into the cellar.  The falling structure knocked down electric wires which fell, live, to the ground further endangering the firemen.

The next day, the debris was still too hot for workmen to comb through.

Insurance companies estimated the six-year-old Ayer Building was worth $389,100.   The front and rear walls survived but the rest was considered to be inferiorly build and was quickly consumed by flame.

Two neighboring buildings also suffered damage – the Holbrook Building, $55,00 in damages, and the Twichell Piano building, suffering $17,000 in losses.

The Victims

“Only five minutes were granted to those who sought to save their lives,” the Tribune said, with the first two minutes being the easies to escape.

The fire injured 26 and killed at least three.  Four of the injured were expected to die.

“The number of lost is uncertain,” the Tribune said.  “Fourteen other persons are missing.  Some of them no doubt are dead.”

Rumor had listed in the dead as four times higher than in actuality.

The three dead bodies that had been identified belonged to men who had leaped to their deaths to escape the flames.  All three men were trapped on upper floors and died instantly when hitting the ground, one landing on his head and caving in his skull.

Many of the injured also had jumped from windows or were burned making their way out of the building.

Of those who were missing, several were believed to have suffocated on smoke.

Onlookers gathered on the street holding large canvas sheets to catch jumpers.  Eventually, they were forced to retreat by the heat, flames and collapsing walls.

Kate Carney

Two victims and a heroine from the Ayer Building disaster
Two victims and a heroine from the Ayer Building disaster

Many people were lauded as heroes.  One of these was Kate Carney, forewoman at National Music Co.

Carney was filling orders when she noticed what looked like dust outside the skylight.  She initially went to retrieve her hat and coat, but chaos soon broke out.  Panicked employees ran for the stairwell.

The elevator arrived on the floor but there was not enough room for everyone.  The fire escape was the only way out, and people ran for the window.  Carney pushed her way past some people and grabbed a ladder.

She is credited with saving her fellow employees and keeping them calm.

Do you think a tragic fire like this could happen today?  Leave a comment below.

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Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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