If you haven’t visited the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago, you’re missing an important piece of local history. The museum houses antique rigs and artifacts and is located in a former firehouse at 5218 S. Western. Our family recently donated a portrait of my great-grandfather, Fire Marshal James Horan, who was killed with 20 other firemen on Dec. 22, 1910.
It was the darkest day in department history, when a 6-story wall fell on the men, while they were battling a blaze in the Union Stockyards. The museum displays banner newspaper headlines of the tragedy and photographs of the victims. Horan’s portrait now occupies a prominent spot in this display.
The portrait is a re-creation of the original, which hung in the office of Charles Comiskey, founder of the Chicago White Sox. Comiskey and Horan grew up together on the West Side. Comiskey went on to a career in baseball, while Horan quickly rose to become the head of the fire department at the age of 47.
A third boyhood friend, Fred Busse, was mayor of Chicago when Horan was killed. Busse reportedly wept when he heard the news. It also devastated Comiskey, who had built Comiskey Park that same year. A book titled, Shadows of Chicago, by Chicago firefighter Matt Drew chronicles the friendship and careers of these three remarkable men.
After Comiskey died in 1931, his family gave Horan’s portrait to my grandmother, Margaret Horan Conerty. Unfortunately, the portrait had been damaged. In 1969, my uncle, Joe Conerty, commissioned an artist to recreate Horan’s portrait. She relied on the old portrait, plus drawings and photographs from the Chicago Historical Society.
My cousin John Conerty and I met at the museum on July 24 to present it. Our visit coincided with an open house at the museum. These are held on the last Saturday of each month, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and typically attract 30-45 visitors.
We received a warm welcome from the retired firemen and staff. The alarm was rung to summon them for the presentation. The museum’s president, Phil Little, was on hand to accept the gift. Phil’s father, Ken Little, had helped found the museum. Ken also co-wrote six books on the history of the CFD.
Phil is justly proud of the beautifully restored facility. I first saw the former firehouse when the city leased it to the museum in 2011 for a dollar a year. It was a wreck! The single-bay firehouse had been built in 1916 and remained active until 1973. After it closed, vandals and vagrants broke in and destroyed the interior. They ripped out plumbing fixtures, causing the basement to fill with water.
Volunteers raised over $25,000 to restore the floors and install new ceilings. Firemen also volunteered their time and expertise to perform much of the restoration. They made the ground floor presentable, before attacking the second floor.
The second floor has been converted into a research center, containing countless books and publications on fire department history. They don’t just cover CFD history. They have archives on fire departments in the five collar counties. I reviewed their binder on the Forest Park Fire Department, which contains historic photos and articles I had never seen before.
Jack Connors, the museum’s secretary, wishes more suburban fire departments would visit the museum. Current fire personnel would be blown away by the vintage vehicles and equipment. They are positively primitive compared to today’s apparatus.
They can also view the handsome visage of “Big Jim” Horan. Now that I know the Comiskey connection, I understand why I became a Sox fan.