The Chicago Fire Department is hot! It’s the subject of a hit TV series. The new Fire Museum of Greater Chicago is now displaying its history and Chicago Firefighter Matt Drew will be signing copies of his book Shadows of Chicago on March 22, at 2 p.m., at Centuries & Sleuths.
Matt chronicles the career of my great-grandfather Fire Marshal James Horan and his life-long friends, Charles Comiskey and Mayor Fred Busse. The book appeals to firefighting buffs, White Sox fans and followers of political corruption. Matt decided to donate a portion of his book sales to the Chicago Fire Department Widows and Orphans Fund, after losing a close friend in a building collapse.
The producers of Chicago Fire are also making an investment in this fund, at the behest of Mayor Emmanuel, who is appearing on the show. Chicago Fire’s depiction of firehouse life and responses to emergencies are not realistic, according to Matt but he understands that TV shows must manufacture drama.
My foreign students are huge fans of “Chicago Fire” and Matt graciously came to my class to discuss the book and his harrowing profession. He also described his recovery from the catastrophic injury he suffered while chopping down a wall.
Frank McMenamin, a former firefighter and board member of the fire museum, also penned a book. The Fight for Chicago is a description of the Chicago Fire as seen through the eyes of Chief Fire Marshal Robert Williams, who led the unsuccessful fight against the flames.
Frank gave me a personal tour of the fire museum, which is located in an old firehouse at 5218 South Western Avenue. The building had been abandoned for years. Gang bangers, scrap thieves and homeless squatters virtually destroyed the interior.
It was a huge undertaking but the board has restored the first floor. The second floor is still in shambles, with holes in the walls and ceiling and buckled hardwood floors. Frank estimated that it could cost another $40,000 to repair. Renovating the second floor would double the museum’s space but it still won’t be large enough to accommodate its huge collection.
The centerpiece is a 1928 Ahrens-Fox that was still pumping in 1961. The beautifully-preserved vehicle took its place in this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade Saturday. The occupants must have been chilled sitting in the rig’s open cab. (Frank explained the truck was built in the days when men were “made of iron.”) An open air squad truck from 1930 was also on display but the museum lacks space for its twelve additional vehicles.
Current firefighters flock to the museum and crack up at the antiquated equipment. They also marvel at relics dating back to Chicago’s volunteer fire department days. There are models showing a firehouse from the 1880’s and the 1958 Our Lady of Angels School, where 93 students and three nuns perished in a fire. Vintage photos, paintings, and equipment: The museum even displays a tribute to my great-grandfather. Thanks to Matt and the museum, “Big Jim” is not forgotten.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.