Excerpts from the ChicagoTribune.com with many photos:

Chief Fire Marshal Michael Corrigan feared he was witnessing an apocalypse when flames raced across a labyrinth of livestock pens on Chicago’s South Side, 85 years ago.

“At one time I thought its destination was Lake Michigan,” he told a Tribune reporter at the scene. “It was coming toward us so fast and the air was so hot no human could stand in its way. I sent in a call for 40 fire companies immediately.”

The Union Stock Yards fire of May 19, 1934, was second only to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 in its destruction. The smoke was seen by the crew of a United Airlines plane flying over South Bend, Indiana, 95 miles away. As the flight approached Midway Airport, Chicago virtually disappeared.

The stockyards that had prompted Carl Sandburg to dub Chicago the “Hog Butcher for the World” occupied about a square mile between Halsted Street, Ashland Avenue, 39th and 47th streets. To the east, the Bridgeport neighborhood narrowly escaped destruction when the flames leaped across Halsted. Firefighters carried dynamite, hoping to create firebreaks like those used to control forest fires. But before homes could be blown up, the fire got to them.

“From the saloons, the small groceries, the upper floor rooms, fled the terrorized workers and residents,” the Tribune reported. “So swift was the advance of the flames that firemen at times had to lay down their hose lines and flee to save themselves.”

A fire station inside the stockyards was destroyed, as were six fire engines, a hook and ladder, and 5,000 feet of hose.

At the time, a branch line ran from the South Side “L” bringing workers to the stockyards. The fire’s intense heat damaged the elevated structure, and the Halsted Street station burned down. When the line’s electricity was cut off, the crew abandoned an “L” car and it, too, was destroyed.

Just as had been the case in 1871, the fire of 1934 was preceded by a dry spell, which turned the stockyards’ wooden animal pens into tinder. The fire was attributed to a motorist throwing a lit cigarette out of the window while driving on a viaduct that carried Morgan Avenue over 43rd Street. It ignited a bunch of hay in a cattle pen below at 4:14 p.m. A worker said he’d often seen drivers doing just that.

One of the first to see the blaze was Isaac Means, a watchman. He shouted “Fire!” to nearby workers. As they fled, they saw Means stay behind, trying to rescue some of the animals. His body was found the next day in the fire’s debris.

Other employees mounted horses and drove sheep, cattle and horses to an improvised corral on a nearby playground. But 30 to 40 animals roamed nearby streets of the neighborhood when the instant cowboys returned to the yards to rescue more animals. 

Highland Stamp, the grand champion shorthorn bull of the previous year’s livestock show, was saved, as were eight award-winning cows. But the venue where they won their prizes was destroyed, along with several pens filled with cattle. The International Amphitheater would later be built on the site.

With the blaze raging uncontrollably, radio stations broadcast the fire marshal’s appeal for off-duty firefighters to report to the scene. Hundreds did so and were given hand pumps to sprinkle water on the roofs of buildings endangered by the blaze. Sirens wailed across the city, as five-sixths of Chicago’s pumpers and ladder trucks raced to the stockyards. Their vacated firehouses were staffed with units sent from Blue Island, Chicago Heights, Oak Lawn, Harvey, and other suburbs. With 200 Chicago police officers doing crowd control at the yards, volunteers manned their beats.

Leonard Smuezymski, an 11-year-old living near 40th Street and Racine Avenue, directed traffic at that intersection when he saw that the officer who usually did so was absent (passersby reported he did an excellent job). Several Boy Scouts troops carried drinking water to the firemen, and John Russell ministered to those who needed a stronger drink. The proprietor of a tavern at 4127 S. Halsted St., he donated five barrels of draft beer and a dozen cases of bottled beer to the firemen. Russell figured that with his business in the path of the fire, he might as well put its inventory to good use. As it happened, his tavern survived.

Other nearby structures did not. In the intense heat, there were explosions of gas tanks of automobiles parked in garages along Emerald and Union avenues, east of the stockyards. Jim O’Leary’s well-known gambling emporium, a two-story frame house at 4183 S. Halsted St., went up in flames. So, too, did the Stockyards Inn, a famed hotel at 42nd and Halsted streets; the Saddle and Sirloin Club, a block west of Halsted, where princes, presidents and other celebrity visitors to the stockyards had dined; and the New Exchange Building, where more than 100 commission firms had offices.

Radio station WAAF, located in the Exchange Building, was knocked off the air, and seven firemen were trapped on its roof, nine floors above the ground. An 85-foot aerial ladder was raised, but proved too short to reach the men. They were about to jump when Lt. Thomas Morrissey carried a 30-pound pompier ladder up the aerial ladder. A pompier has a large, curved hook that can grab a window ledge or cornice. Its 15-foot length bridged the gap between the roof and the aerial ladder, the firemen climbed down it, and were saved. Morrissey had been off-duty, heard the radio call for help and volunteered for the dangerous rescue assignment. 

By 8:30 p.m. Saturday, the fire was controlled, but at midnight, firemen were still pouring water on isolated outbursts of flame. On Sunday, when the stockyards were closed, insurance adjusters and fire marshals estimated the fire’s cost: $8 million in lost property — that would be more than $150 million today — and 50 people injured, most of them firemen overcome by smoke or suffering burns. Means, the watchman who stayed by his post after giving the alarm, was the only fatality. Between 400 and 1,000 livestock perished.

That Monday the stockyards opened for business, even as Fire Department snowplows were plowing away the wreckage, and 1,500 new workers were hired to rebuild and repair buildings and animal pens. Farmers were advised to hold back livestock destined for Chicago, and St. Louis offered to process some. But there was no way that Sandburg’s “City of The Broad Shoulders” was going to admit it needed help.

Amid smoking piles of debris and walls threatening to fall, trading resumed in Chicago.

“We’re getting along all right,” O.T. Henkle, the stockyards’ general manager, told the Tribune. “In ordinary times, of course, every commission merchant has his own pens out there (pointing to the south to a devastated area where only the blacked posts stood), but today they are all working together, cooperating, and the livestock is kept moving.”

Indeed, the day’s receipts were 12,000 cattle, 26,000 hogs and 5,000 sheep. All brought higher prices than they had at the precipitous closing of the market on Saturday.

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