The Unforgettable Firemen: Two new museums will commemorate the Chicago Fire Department’s past

Firefighters on parade; Library of Congress

Firefighters on parade; Library of Congress

“This is the city that burned down,” Bill Kugelman says bluntly when asked about the importance of a Chicago fire museum. The former president of the Chicago Firemen’s Union sees little official recognition of fire history in a city famous for rising out of the ashes of the 1871 blaze. But that is about to change. In the next year, two museums dedicated to fire service, the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago and the Chicago Fire Department African-American Firefighter Museum, are scheduled to open on the South Side.

The Fire Museum of Greater Chicago began 12 years ago as a collection of records and memorabilia from Chicago’s firefighting past. For years, it maintained the city’s only exhibits dedicated to fire history in a small library on the third floor of Saint Gabriel Elementary School at 45th Street and Wallace Avenue. When St. Gabriel reclaimed this space in 2007, Kugelman and others involved with the collection spoke to several of the city’s aldermen and eventually secured space in a 1916 vintage firehouse at 52nd Street and Western Avenue. The historic space is currently undergoing serious renovation. Walls are being stripped out and doors replaced, and a huge amount of work remains before the museum will be ready to hold exhibits. The renovation is partially historical, as some features of the station’s original design will be reproduced to evoke an early firehouse. The massive front doors are being replaced, and a fire pole will eventually run through the station, though not for visitor use. While some exhibits will incorporate the building itself, Kugelman is clear: “We’re not restoring a firehouse; we’re using a firehouse as a museum.”

Most of the space will display pieces from the museum’s collection. Planned exhibits include vintage alarms, tapes, and dispatching equipment, as well as wood pipelines from before the installation of metal plumbing. One room will display the helmets of former commissioners and chaplains; another will be filled with uniforms. The museum will also exhibit two antique firefighting rigs, an attraction that Kugelman believes will appeal to the public. Several items commemorate Chicago’s unique fire history. Crosses, religious icons, and a realistic model memorialize the deadly Our Lady of Angels School fire in 1958, one of the Chicago fire service’s most painful moments. Artifacts rescued from the 1893 World’s Fair fires will also appear, including a statue of Columbus that has became a memorial to the firefighters who died trying to put out the blazes.

The collection also comprises an extensive archive, and Kugelman emphasizes the museum’s role in making this history accessible to the community. Thousands of logbooks, some dating back to the 1870s, and a huge collection of photographs will be available to the public. “It’s about memory. If somebody comes in and says, ‘Grandpa was in the fire department in 1892, do you have anything on it?’ We’ll be able to say ‘Yeah, sure.’ We’ll pull out the logbooks and the photographs. We’ll have a copy machine there so people can take all this with them.” If renovations can be completed in time, Kugelman hopes the museum will open on September 11th this year.

The site of the African-American Firefighter Museum lies several miles away in another historic fire station at 68th Street and South Harper Avenue. The project is in its early stages; specific uses of the space are still being considered, and a tentative opening date of February 2010 depends on funding. Abdurrahim Khan, a retired fire captain and the chairman of the new museum’s operations committee, says that the museum’s mission is “to tell the unique history of African-American firefighters and how they contributed to the service.” He emphasizes the museum’s focus on the specific historical challenges that black firefighters faced in a service that was racially segregated into the 1950s. Current plans include a children’s library in the museum, which may allow the museum to serve as a community center.

Everyone seems to know everyone else in Chicago’s firefighting community, but the two museums are distinct projects. At this stage, there has been little communication between them. But they share a commitment to the traditions of Chicago’s fire service, and if all goes well, within a year they will finally be sharing it with the rest of the city.

13 comments for “The Unforgettable Firemen: Two new museums will commemorate the Chicago Fire Department’s past

  1. April 16, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Great to hear. I’ll crosspost. Too bad they can’t get together. There is no city in this country that deserves an impressive museum for its firefighters than Chicago. Thanks for the article.

  2. Donna M Yex
    May 21, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    I have a picture pre 1900 with my great grandfather who, was according to family lure, the first captain of the firestation located in the stockyards. It is a formal picture of the men next to the hand pump style horse drawn truck. The horses were kept in a barn behind my gr grandfather’s house at 42nd Pl near Normal ave. His last name was McCabe. I would like to get more information if possible. If wanted I could give a copy of the picture. It is a look back in time.

  3. May 26, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    My grandfather was a Chicago fireman from about 1890 until 1920. His name was Michael Dalton Connors. I would like to know if there is a record of him and if so, how can I obtain it?

  4. May 29, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    If these commenters would like to contact me at I would certainly get back to them with info they asked for.

  5. Dolores Corrigan Schaefer
    July 19, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    In memory of my Grandfather, Commissioner Michael J. Corrigan, I would like to attend. What will be the exact dates?

  6. July 27, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    In memory of my Grandfather, Commissioner Michael J. Corrigan, I would like to donate my extensive collection of his memorabilia. I would also like to attend the openings of both museums when dates are finalized. Who would be my contact?

  7. Richard Banks
    September 5, 2009 at 6:40 am

    My Father Hook&ladder jim (James Banks)served on the Chicago Fire department from the 1950’s to the 1980’s I also have his partially deformed leather fire helmit from the many,many fires he help fight and other memorabilia from his time served on the department and also fire safety service. By Father retired as a Battalian chief out of the 18th district. I would like his things displayed for all to see.

  8. Carl D. McFerren
    February 3, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Abdurrahim Khan,

    Please contact me regarding some Chicago African American Fire Fighter photos that my father Carl F. McFerren left me may be of interest to your project.

  9. Hugh Gough
    March 9, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Dear Sir,
    I am looking for information on Terence Caffrey (or McCaffrey)killed on duty early 1920,s
    If you are unable to help,perhaps you could point me in right direction.
    Hugh Gough
    Rep of Ireland.

  10. May 19, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Mr. Banks
    Can you please contact me at
    I have photos of your father when he was a member of the Chicago Fire Patrol.

    Thanks Keith

  11. Richard Banks
    February 3, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    I would like to dedicate some of my late father (Hook & Ladder) James Banks fire department things to the museum.
    please contact me at

  12. Bill Kugelman
    October 20, 2012 at 12:44 am

    Would Dolores Corrigan Schaefer please contact me at .

  13. Bill Kugelman
    October 20, 2012 at 12:49 am

    And also Donna M. Yex please contact me too. Anyone is welcome to send me an email and I will get back to you asap.

Comments are closed.