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Chicago Fire Touches ND


On this fateful date in 1903, a terrible fire swept through the Iroquois Chicago Theatre during a packed, bargain-priced afternoon matinee of the play Bluebeard. The fire, which may have stemmed from an open arc spotlight, killed more than 600 people, and injured 250 more. Most of the deaths were caused by smoke inhalation and burns, but some individuals also were trampled to death as the panicked crowd attempted to escape the danger.

Actor Eddie Foy later said the play had drawn huge crowds that holiday week. When he looked out at the audience that afternoon, he said the theater was packed with men, women, and children, with many standing.

Several North Dakotans were in attendance during the week as well. And while some missed the fire by several days, Miss Nettie Peterson, the 35-year-old principal of Central school in Fargo, was not as lucky. She had taught in Fargo for twelve years and was spending the holiday break with her sister in Chicago. Both perished. Mr. and Mrs. John Coyle of Minot also were in attendance, but they escaped, burned and with clothing torn, having climbed over "the bodies of dead and dying victims."

The Iroquois Theatre was new, costing about $450,000. It was huge and resplendent, built of marble and plate glass, mahogany and gilding. Yet it lacked some fire-protective features, while others malfunctioned. Exits were not well marked, and in some areas lacking.

The fire began in the stage area. An asbestos curtain, designed to protect the audience, was not immediately lowered, and when it was, it caught on a wire set up for the aerialist, who was supposed to fly out over the audience during the second act of the play. The utter panic, which Foy tried to alleviate, also worsened the situation.

The Iroquois Theatre fire was the deadliest single-building fire in United States history. Its effects were far reaching, touching families around the country and prompting reforms in fire safety regulations.

Dakota Datebook by Sarah Walker


Ward County Independent, January 6, 1904, p1, p5

"http://www.nfpa.org/research/fire%20investigations/assembly.aspx#theaters" http://www.nfpa.org/research/fire%20investigations/assembly.aspx#theaters "Iroquois Theater, 12/30/03"