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A Tale of Three Cities

Firefighting Folklore


Not many jobs require a person to go rushing headlong into danger at the ring of a bell. But a fireman’s job does. Those fine persons will immediately don a hat and a coat and speed to the source of the alarm. It’s mighty impressive and all the rest of us are deeply grateful for this. However, if there is a fire blazing out of control, you do have to tell them about it or they won’t burst into action.

You’ve probably heard about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, called "great" because it was huge, not because it was fun. That fire destroyed over 17,000 homes and killed some 300 people. But did you know that the fire burned for over half an hour before an alarm was ever sounded? Alarm boxes were actually kept locked in those days, to prevent false alarms!

When the first alarm box was finally opened and the lever pulled, the alarm somehow did not get through. The fire dispatcher was playing a guitar for a couple of girls at the time and he kept on serenely strumming, completely unawares. After the fire had been growing and blazing for nearly an hour a watchman screamed at the dispatcher to sound an alarm, which he did, and the first three engines, two hose wagons, and two hook and ladders were sent out -- but in the wrong direction!

At first the dispatcher refused to sound another alarm, hoping to avoid further confusion. The fire kept growing and spreading, lighting up the night sky over the city. Eventually, however, lots of alarms did get sounded, calling out the fire department of the entire city plus fire engines from eight different states. After that, finally, you can bet there was a whole lot of firefighting going on!


It was dry, very dry, that year; no rain had fallen anywhere in the region for months. At the very same time that the Great Chicago Fire was roaring and blazing, just 250 miles away to the north the small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was engulfed within about five minutes in the flames of another fire that was raging out of control, a huge forest fire. There was hardly even time for an alarm.

Peshtigo had only one fire engine, a hand operated pumper. This, in concert with a bucket brigade, was not enough to cope with the situation. Within an hour the entire town was leveled and more than 1200 people lost their lives, at least five times as many as died in Chicago that night. The Great Peshtigo Fire was one of the most destructive forest fires in history.


In 1788, nearly a century before the two great fires above entered into the annals of history and folklore, another alarming fire sprang to life, this one in New Orleans. It quickly consumed stores, shops, the town hall, the hospital, and entire neighborhoods of homes -- in fact, ninety percent of the city, 856 buildings -- and yet the Franciscan priests and monks who were on the scene when the fire started in a church refused to ring the church bells to sound an alarm!

At that time New Orleans was governed by Spain. The population numbered a bit over five thousand souls and almost all of them were members of the Capuchin Order, it being against the law there to be of any other faith. According to the rules of this Order it was forbidden to ring the church bells on Good Friday, and this not-so-good fire manifested on that very day. So the priests and monks stood around, praying perhaps, while the town and their churches and chapels burned to the ground. By the time several, more practical minded, persons had run all around shouting out the alarm and the fire engines and bucket brigades had faithfully burst into action, it was too late.

As we’ve noted, firemen are valiant and reliable folks, always ready to jump to it and work up a sweat in the dangerous line of duty. Still, for them to even begin to do such a job of work they have to be told that there is a fire and where to find the flames.

The very last thing a fireman wants is to have a big fire burning out of control, let alone a great fire. Though there are indeed cases -- as some of them will tell you -- when a smaller, controlled burn can be a heck of a lot of fun.

~ Peter Kohler

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