Former fire chief killed in World’s Fair blaze, 1893

Screenshot from video about World’s Fair cold storage fire produced by fire See the whole video here.

Seventeen people died in a spectacular fire during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. One was former Springfield Fire Marshal John H. Freeman.

Following his second stint as fire marshal (today’s fire chief), Freeman enlisted with the World’s Fair fire company. He was among 30 or so firefighters who responded when flames were seen near the chimney of the fair’s cold storage building on July 10, 1893.

“As a fire trap, the cold storage warehouse could not have been more perfectly constructed,” the Illinois State Register’s story said.

Strictly speaking, the building wasn’t part of the fair, officially known as the World’s Columbian Exposition. It was an associated exhibit sponsored by the Hercules Iron Works and a coalition of refrigeration manufacturers. It was cooled by three 120-ton ice machines and, at the time of the fire, contained 40 barrels of linseed oil and “a quantity of meat, fruit, etc.” The top floor held an indoor skating rink.

Despite the ironworks sponsorship, the cold storage building was made of wood covered by “staff,” a composition material that looked like marble, part of the fair’s “White City” image. The cooling machinery was powered by furnaces that exhausted their fumes via a 200-foot iron chimney on the roof.

“Focused on the aesthetics of the structure,” says, “buildiers masked the unsightly smokestack with a wooden tower. A cupola finished off the central tower, its base resting just 30 inches above the central flue — creating what would come to be a deadly fire hazard.”

The original fire at the top of the tower appeared to be small, but firefighters had no access to the summit. As a result, a dozen or so firefighters, including Freeman, jury-rigged climbing ropes to a narrow balcony just below the chimney top. They then began to haul hoses up to the flames.

Just before they reached their goal, however, firefighters and viewers below began to scream — flames had suddenly broken out midway up the tower, trapping the climbers atop the structure. A few of the men were able to slide down the ropes before they were burnt away, but the others, hopeless in the face of increasing heat, had only bad choices: jump to the main roof 60 to 90 feet below or wait to be consumed by the flames. Their tragic deaths took place within seconds.

Freeman was one of the men who fell into the inferno as the tower collapsed. His unrecognizably burned body was identified later by the watch and chain he carried. Thirteen of the fire’s 17 victims were firefighters.

Freeman’s heroism was honored with a funeral procession in Springfield July 13 that included  all of the city’s fire equipment — three engines, a hook-and-ladder wagon, the chemical engine and the fuel wagon. He is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Fire Marshal John Freeman

John H. Freeman (1837-93), started his firefighting career at age 13, when he hired on as a torch boy for the New York Fire Department (a torch boy ran ahead of early fire engines, carrying a kerosene torch to light the way to a fire). For a more reliable career, however, he learned the jewelry trade; he came to Springfield in the late 1850s to go to work for jeweler/theater owner George Chatterton Sr.

John Freeman (drawing from July 12, 1893, Illinois State Journal; courtesy State Journal-Register)

Freeman also joined one of the volunteer fire companies — there were a half-dozen — that fought all fires in early Springfield. When the city finally created a paid fire department in the late 1860s, Freeman was one of its first members. He served as engineer and then foreman of the city’s “Button company,” called that because its fire engine was made by the Button Manufacturing Co. of Waterford, N.Y.

Mayor John McCreery named Freeman fire marshal in 1886. He kept the position until 1890, under two more mayors. He was dismissed after Mayor Charles Hay won a second term in 1889, but was reappointed by Mayor Rheuna Lawrence in 1891.

As chief, Freeman was expected to respond to every major fire in the city, often by horse and wagon from home. However, he was a small man and not a great horse driver. As a result, his wife, Margaret Marr Freeman, a strong woman with a solid frame, “became locally famous for regularly driving her husband to fires in the couple’s wagon in even the worst weather,” State Journal-Register reporter Doug Pokorski wrote in 1994.

“Maggie Freeman’s ‘skillful handling of the horse won her high commendation on more than one occasion,’ (a) 1904 county history recorded.”

Rheuna Lawrence’s successor as mayor, Frank Kramer, dismissed Freeman as fire marshal in April 1893. Freeman, who knew some of the World’s Fair firefighters, then joined that department. He had been with the Chicago unit for only a few weeks when he died.

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