Monthly Archives: January 2012

Solution to the January Puzzler

Post Fire Debris

What became of the debris left from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871?

Congratulations to those whose answers included landfill in Lake Michigan.

During the fire, October 8, 1871, Chicago witnessed its meteoric development in reverse. The fire that began on the city’s southwest side destroyed nearly everything in its path before burning itself out at the northern city limits – more than 4.5 square miles. The city was reduced to “a mass of ashes, stone-fragments, melted and agglomerated nails, spikes, horseshoes, bars, bundles of iron, crockery, china and glassware, and thousands of other relics.” There were literally millions of tons of rubble.

And this new wasteland was also hot. Almost two weeks after the fire, bricks and stones were still too hot to pick up. Finally, thousands of men and boys and hundreds of teams of horses and wagons could get at the ruins to pick up usable bricks and scrap iron. Five thousand wagon-loads of waste and litter a day were dumped into Lake Michigan.

The landfill was used for two major projects. The first was to fill in a lagoon that had been formed by the lake shore, adjacent to Michigan Avenue, and the Illinois Central Railroad that had ridden a trestle parallel to the shore since the 1850’s. The second project reshaped the mouth of the Chicago River at the Lake, enabling the construction of locks to manage the flow of water.

When I look back on the effect of the Great Fire on the city, I understand that it had a truly transformative impact. It not only burned, it led to the addition of nearly a half-mile of land east of the existing lake shore as well as initiating the modernizing of the city and, in the process establishing the city’s reputation as the great repository of innovative architecture. Without the Fire, Chicago would be nothing like it is today.

References: “American Apocalypse” by Ross Miller, “Smoldering City” by Karen Sawislak, and “The Encyclopedia of Chicago”


Chicago’s Chicken Man

"Chicken Man" - Anderson Punch

I saw him any number of times in his last years. The Chicken Man, real name Anderson Punch, who went by Casey Jones and was also called Chicken Charley, was a Jawa. Historically, Jawas were wandering junk men and performers who plied their trades on the streets and the corners of Chicago. They are scarce now, but as late as the 1970’s they provided services and entertainment to the citizens.

Legend has it that the Chicken Man, who described himself as a show-man, had played the accordion on the streets for many years prior to his chicken phase. When his accordion was broken, he broadened his repertoire to include the chicken act. Until his death at 104 in 1974, he was well-known throughout the South Side, Maxwell Street Market and the Loop for his big white performing rooster. One wag wrote, “that chicken could do anything but talk.”

The old black man with a beard and a cumulus of snow white hair walked along with the rooster atop his ancient, ruined fedora.  He would draw a crowd by pulling out his old squeeze box from a battered tin case and playing, the chicken riding on his head the whole time. After the onlookers each put down a dime for the show, the old man took the bird off his head and laid it on the pavement. Covering it with a cloth, he told it to “Go to sleep. Go to sleep.” The rooster would lie there silently while he played and kept up a steady patter in a high-pitched, toothless voice, telling how he had trained 37 roosters during his years as a show-man. Then he would remove the cloth. The chicken would wake up, scratch-dancing around the sidewalk to the music. The rapt crowd watched as if hypnotized.

The show continued until it was either over or until a cop ran him off. I have heard people who were around in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who remember the Chicken Man fondly. Some say they saw him at 63rd and Halsted, his favorite corner. Many were introduced to him by their parents on Sunday mornings, bargain-hunting on Maxwell Street. Still more ran across him in the Loop, as I did in the late 60’s at the very end of his show biz career, nearly 100 years old. I’m glad I was born early enough to have the treat of enjoying one of the city’s most uniquely entertaining characters ever. I don’t know anyone who ever saw the Chicken Man describe the experience without a smile on his face. Except maybe a cop or two. 

 Note: Check out the short video: “The Chicken Man of Chicago” at this link www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6itbXNgVjc


The Bluebird – a poem

The Bluebird

Hours transporting dreams never-before-dreamed

and hopes for the maybe-possible,

end in clouds of steam and coal smoke as the Wabash Bluebird

chugs to a stop,

returning the 10 year-old child from the City of Big Shoulders

to his home in the Corn Belt.

His mind swims with the big city memory of the real league-of-their-own girls,

staying with his aunt Agnes in the back of her antique shop,

and

drifting off to the rumble of Cottage Grove Green Hornets.

He brings home the awe of a big world

to his little town,

the big world of traffic, sirens, paddy wagons

and their wonderful, lethal exhaust,

of neighborliness painted by the denizens

of a next-door bar,

who tell him stories of the city,

with a sandwich and a coke,

just because he’s a kid,

and mesmerized.

The Bluebird grows ghostly as he watches it depart for the South.

Could perhaps the world be an immense, never-ending

adventure?

Then for the first time the child sees his home town

as a different place,

through new eyes.

And he sees the metropolis as a place

of excitement,  curiosity, creativity.

Where the heart cares about more than its next beat.

Ripples of heat radiate from the crops

for another ten summers,

and ten more winters shroud the remains in snow.

An ever-stronger force draws the boy toward

the city where he needs to be.

As departure looms real,

the brave boy is brave only until the leaving.

The brave are always afraid when first they awake.

At the final leaving,

the golden harvest of that final  season

sets the wedding car aglow

with its luminous halo

on the grand highway to the Windy City.

And all else fades to gray.

– – Written by Larry Ambrose


The January Puzzler

The Great Fire

The Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871 destroyed much of the City. Energetic civic leaders vowed to rebuild the city immediately. However, before rebuilding could begin a massive amount of rubble and ash from the fire had to be dealt with.

What became of all that debris?

Enter your answer as a comment below.

I’ll publish the solution next month.

Good Luck!

Larry