Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on July 1, 2014.

In 1893, Chicago hosted the Columbian Exposition celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. Among the fair’s technological marvels was the Cold Storage Building, which made ice, kept food cold, and contained an indoor skating rink. It was six stories high and designed to mimic a Moorish castle, with towers at each corner. As were most of the other buildings at the exposition, it was covered with a material known as staff, a temporary building material made of plaster of paris and hemp fiber, designed to resemble marble.

According to an article at IDEALS, an online resource of the University of Illinois (UI), a 200-foot (61-meter) iron chimney was required to run the Cold Storage Building’s refrigeration units, but the “designers believed that the smokestack would clash with the fair’s other buildings.” To get around this problem, they built a large wooden tower around the smokestack in the center of the roof. The roof itself was 60 feet (18 meters) above grade, and a gallery was built around the tower at a height of 120 feet (36 meters). A staircase led from the roof to the gallery, but there was no way to get from the gallery to the top of the enclosed smokestack.

Though the tower looked beautiful, it created a distinct fire hazard: its base was just 30 inches (76 centimeters) above the chimney’s upper rim. After dousing a small fire in the tower shortly after the exposition opened, the acting chief of the World’s Fair Fire Department noted that the Cold Storage Building was “a miserable fire trap” that would “go up in smoke before long.”

On the afternoon of July 10, fairgoers began to notice heavy smoke rising from the building’s central tower, and the fire alarm sounded at 1:30 p.m. Twenty firefighters responded from the fair’s fire department and from the local fire station a few blocks away, and they began to climb to the roof of the gallery that ran around the tower. They were unaware that burning debris from the top of the tower had fallen into the space between the chimney and the tower’s inner walls until flames “erupted from the tower 50 feet below them,” according to the UI article.

With only minutes to escape, some of the firefighters managed to slide to safety down their burning hoses and ropes. However, 14 men were trapped and either jumped to their deaths or died when the tower collapsed. About 50,000 fairgoers witnessed the tragedy, some from atop the Ferris wheel. The UI article quotes the fire department report as saying that “never was so terrible a tragedy witnessed by such a sea of agonized faces.”

Eventually, 21 engine companies from the Chicago Fire Department extinguished the blaze before it spread to nearby buildings. The next day, 100,000 visitors had a new attraction to visit: the still-smoldering ruins of the Cold Storage Building.