A blog about the restoration, remodel and renovation of a 1929 Chicago-style brick bungalow

1935 Roadhouse Fire Chain of Events

This post has been in my drafts for ages! I’ve always been meaning to post it, but somehow it never seemed like the right time. Since the 79th anniversary of this tragic fire happened just last week, I thought it was now time to finish the story.

For a little background, five years ago I had been engrossed with researching our house and neighborhood history and found some interesting stories which you might want to read first. You’ll find them here, here and here.

Now for the original post:

On March 25, 1935, the day after the tragic fire that took six lives at Club Rendezvous in Morton Grove — a club that was owned and operated by a bungalow neighbor — the Chicago Tribune ran a more extensive article about an inquest over the fire and the night’s chain of events. Here are some excerpts:

An inquest will be held today over the charred bodies of three men and three women burned to death in the flames which swept the Club Rendezvous roadhouse in Morton Grove early yesterday.

It will mark the opening of investigations by state, county and village authorities into conditions which permitted a hundred merrymakers to be jammed into a small, flimsy structure provided with only two pitifully inadequate means of escape from the flames.

It will be the continuation of the campaign which started last night to prevent recurrence of such a tragedy when Sherif [sic] John Toman ordered county highway police to visit every roadhouse in the county and determine if there were any other such fire traps among the country and village roadhouses of the county.

Survivors Called for Inquest

At the inquest the coroner’s jury will hear stories of the survivors of the fire which left six dead and 16 in hospitals. Officials of Morton Grove will be asked what fire regulations permitted the existence of the conditions which brought about the disaster.

It appears that this is a turning point for fire regulations in public establishments throughout Cook County. Within days the county board adopted a resolution to cancel the liquor license of any tavern in which fire hazards are found, and to arrange for inspection of all drinking establishments to eliminate fire hazards and to report any obvious fire traps.

The article goes on:

Death Scene: Season’s Gayest Crowd.

The largest and gayest crowd of the season was there Saturday night and Sunday morning in the transformed bungalow about three miles west of Evanston.

In the front was a frame addition to the building proper, comprising the main dance floor, some six feet lower than the level of the main part of the building housing the dining room, bar and kitchen.

There were only two exits. The main one was a narrow, 2 foot 7 inch doorway leading into a small anteroom on the front, east side. From the anteroom egress was by a 3 foot doorway. This door, contrary to every known fire regulation, opened inward.

The only other means of exit from the bungalow was through the kitchen.

That was reached by a narrow corridor and through a doorway only 1 foot 10 inches in width.

Large Midnight Crowd.

Shortly after midnight the main crowds began to stream into the place. Two parties were of Northwestern university students who had come from the annual WAA-MU musical comedy given at the school. One of these young men, receiving congratulations for his part in the performance, was shortly to die in the raging inferno.

A three piece band was blaring popular tunes. The dance floor was packed, scarcely giving room for couples to move about in time with the music. Every table in the dining room was filled and there was no room in front of the bar.

Elmer Cowdrey, owner of the roadhouse, said that he had been compelled to turn down many reservations. Merrymaking was at its height in the gayly festooned roadhouse.

“Fire!” Brings Frantic Rush.

Suddenly, from one corner of the dance floor came a puff of flame and a billow of smoke. It came from near a gas heater, suspended from the ceiling.

“Fire!” The scream that has startled countless panics, burst out.

Mrs. Rose Cowdrey, wife of the owner, was seated at a table in the dining room.

She leaped to her feet, seized a seltzer bottle and started toward the first burst of fire.

Again sounded the cry, “Fire! Fire!”

There was a frenzy of fear among the merrymakers and they dashed toward the one exit, screaming, trampling, pushing, hitting out in terror. They smashed against the door and drilled about frantically until a space could be forced to allow it to swing inward.

Behind the bar in the dining room, Cowdrey shouted to James Bradford, the chef, to call the fire department. He then sprang on a chair and vainly shouted for the crowds to make their way toward the rear of the bungalow.

His cries went unheeded.

In the dancing room the flames already had engulfed the entire space, spreading through the highly inflammable drapes and streamers which festooned the walls and ceilings.

This blazing cloth began to shower its fragments on the frenzied, fighting throng below, bathing them in a fiery rain. The electric lights went out, and the scene was made more terrible in the ghastly glow of flames.

Many who could not fight their way to the door leaped through windows, heedless of the gashes torn in their bodies and faces.

What a horrific story. I don’t know what happened to Elmer and Rose Cowdrey, but it probably marked the demise of roadhouses in Morton Grove. I was also struck by the storytelling in journalism at that time. I can’t imagine reading a newspaper article today containing such emotion and descriptive terms, but I guess we have TV for that nowadays (especially 24-hour cable news), for better or worse.

2 Comments

  1. Dan Staackmann on April 20, 2015 at 7:25 pm

    I grew up in the neighborhood this article refers to
    I know people who lived in those bungalows who still live in Morton Grove

    • denise on April 20, 2015 at 9:54 pm

      Hi Dan–interesting, perhaps we know some of the same people then (or my husband does as he has lived in this neighborhood a bit longer than I and grew up several blocks north of here). Although I didn’t grow up here I also went to West. Thanks for visiting and commenting–btw you got my vote! 😉

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