Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Water Street Fire of 1857

All of Chicago's red light districts were commonly known as "Levees," even those that were nowhere near the river, such as the famous South side Levee centered around the Everleigh Club at Dearborn and 22nd. The name was adopted from the shady areas in towns along the Mississippi, typically near the river, where seaborne men would find brothels and gambling houses during a furlough.

However, from time to time, riverfront property in Chicago did become the home to houses of ill-repute, including one located on the second floor of a brick warehouse situated at 109 South Water Street (now 35 W. Wacker). As a harbinger of fires to come, in 1857, one of the women working at this location kicked over a lantern, leading to a massive conflagration in which twenty-three died, although all of the brothel employees escaped unharmed.

As a result, political pressure led to the formation one month later, of the Citizens Fire Brigade, a group of insurance and business interests who acted to remove valuables from burning buildings and prevent post-fire looting. Another consequence of the fire of 1857 was the formation, less than one year later, of Chicago's first paid fire department (previously, all firemen were volunteers).

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