Friday, June 17, 2016


I wrote an earlier blog post about the terrible Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta, Georgia on December 7, 1946 where 119 people were killed.  The Winecoff Hotel fire was, in fact, the second major hotel fire in the U.S. to take place in 1946.  Six months earlier on June 5, 1946 there was a fire at the La Salle Hotel in Chicago where 61 people were killed.  Both fires are similar in that there were countless stories of heroism by firefighters, hotel staff and even other guests who led people to safety but there was one particular story of heroism from the La Salle Hotel fire that I want to pass along.  It is the story of a woman who refused to leave her post at the hotel switchboard and gave her life warning hotel guests of the danger - Julia Curran Berry.

Buried in the midst of all the stories about the La Salle Hotel fire was this one:


Chicago, June 5 (AP)
A 44 year old switchboard operator, though surrounded by smoke and flames which swept through the La Salle hotel early today, called room after room to notify guests of their danger.

The first firemen to reach the phone room on the mezzanine floor found the operator, Mrs. Julia Berry, dead at her post.

It was through Mrs. Berry's switchboard that the first alarm was sounded.  W. H. Bradfield, assistant night manager, told Central police that he ran to the phone room and told Mrs. Berry to "get out."

"No, I'm going to stick here.  Maybe I can do some good," she answered.

Bradfield ran to rouse guests.  A short time later he remembered Mrs. Berry and tried to get back onto the phone room but was swept back by the flames.

Mrs. Berry, a widow, was the mother of a 16 year old boy, Jack.  She had been employed by the hotel 11 years.   

Before we look further at the fire and its aftermath, let's see what we can find out about the heroine, Julia Berry.

Julia Curran was born November 9, 1901 in Chicago, the daughter of Patrick J. Curran (1869-1905) and Bridget (called Delia), nee Fahey (1864-1940).  Julia was an only child.  Her father was a guard for the railroad. 

Patrick Curran died in 1905 when Julia was only 3 years old.  At the time of his death, the family was living at 436 West 12th Street (now 1121 W. Roosevelt Road) in Chicago.  There are now low-rise apartment buildings on the site built in about 2000.

The 1910 US Census finds Julia and her mother living at 225 West 43rd Street in Chicago (now a vacant lot).  These were the days before any Social Security or any other survivorship benefits, so Julia's mother Bridget reports that she is a janitress in an office building.  Julia is nine years old.  Living with them is 27 year old Annie Fahey, also a janitress in an office building (and probably a relative although she is indicated on the census as a "Roomer.")

The census taker for the 1920 US Census visited Julia and her mother on January 2, 1920.  They were still living at 225 West 43rd Street. Delia gave her occupation as "caretaker in an office," and Julia as a "Telephone Operator."  Also living with them was 6 year old nephew John Collins.  

Things brightened up considerably for Julia Curran when, on June 9, 1920 she married Martin Joseph Berry (1894-1938) in Chicago.  The bride was 18, the groom was 25.  Martin Berry was a "Train Man" for the South Side Elevated Company.   

Martin Joseph Berry (sometimes spelled "Barry") was born June 12, 1894 in Metamora, Illinois (a suburb of Peoria).  His parents were Martin Berry (1865-1894) and Mary, nee O'Toole (1863-1942).  

Martin J. Berry was a veteran of World War I.  He had enlisted May 20, 1918 and served as a Private in Company C of the 10th Division - 41st US Infantry.  He was honorably discharged on February 6, 1919. 

Julia and Martin Berry had only one child - a boy, John Joseph Berry (1929-2005), born April 20, 1929 in Chicago.

The census taker for the 1930 US Census interviewed the Berry family on May 21, 1930.  They are living at 4343 S. Wentworth Avenue in Chicago (now under the Dan Ryan Expressway).  They paid $34.00 per month rent for their apartment.  Martin reported that he was now a "Porter in a Dry-Goods Store."   Julia is not working outside the home. Strangely, their son John, who would have been just over one year old, was not listed.  Also living in their apartment were 17 year old John Collins, listed as a "Cousin" and Julia's mother Delia Curran who was 66 years old but told the census taker she was 56.  John Collins was a telegraph messenger; Delia Curran did not work outside the home.

On September 20, 1938, Martin Berry died.  His death record reports his occupation as "Packer" and noted that he lived at 6843 S. Elizabeth Street in Chicago (now a vacant lot for sale for $26,000.00).  

Martin Berry was buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Worth, Illinois. Because of his military service he was entitled to a military headstone:

                                                   Photo courtesy Find a Grave volunteer William Kazupski
The 1940 US Census was the last one for Julia Berry. She was still living at 6843 S. Elizabeth Street in Chicago.  She was a widow, and was 39 years old (although she told the census taker she was 37.) Living with her in her apartment which she rented for $40.00 per month were her 9 year old son John, her mother Delia who was 75 but this time told the census taker she was 72, and cousin John Collins.  Julia reported her occupation as "Telephone Operator in a Hotel," and interestingly, cousin John Collins was now a "Houseman in a Hotel."  It pays to have relatives who can help you get a job during a Depression.

Julia's mother Bridget (Delia) Fahey Curran died just before Christmas on December 20, 1940.  She was 76 years old.  Julia's father Patrick Curran had been buried at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, but Julia buried her mother in the plot she bought at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery when her husband Martin died in 1938:

Photos courtesy of Find a Grave volunteer William Kazupski

That brings us up to the fateful day of June 5, 1946.  Forty four year old widow Julia Curran Berry was working as the nightime switchboard operator at the La Salle Hotel, where she had worked since 1935.

The LaSalle Hotel, Chicago
The hotel was fully booked - all 886 rooms were occupied with over 1,000 guests, and the hotel did not have a sprinkler system.  Accounts differ as to where and when the fire began.  Some sources say it started in the Silver Grill Cocktail Lounge on the lower floor on the La Salle Street side adjacent to the lobby, while others have it starting below ground in an elevator shaft.  Some sources say that it started about 11:30 p. m. while other reports say it started at 12:15 a. m.  Irregardless of when it started, the Chicago Fire Department was not notified until 12:35 a.m.

Once it started, the fire quickly spread through the highly-varnished wood paneling in the lounge and the mezzanine balcony overlooking the lobby before ascending stairwells and shafts.  While a significant number died from flames, a greater number of deaths were caused by suffocation from the thick, black smoke.  Doors planned for each floor had never been installed, turning the stairwells from escape routes into chimneys, sucking smoke up into the corridors.

Hundreds of guests were trapped in upper story rooms and many others were later carried down extension ladders from as high as the sixth floor.  Still more managed to escape by climbing down steel fire escapes still clad in their nightclothes.  

As flames shot as high as the seventh floor level from the street, bystanders reported the screams and cries of men and women standing in open windows.

A 5-11 alarm, followed by special calls, was sounded.  Firemen rushed into the smoke filled lobby and braved fierce flames that made the mezzanine a hellish ball of fire.  Soon firemen were carrying out unconscious guests picked up in smoke filled corridors.  

A number of newly discharged servicemen staying at the hotel joined the rescue effort.  Seaman 1st Class Joseph O'Keefe, aided by three civilians, dragged 27 guests from fifth-floor rooms after discovering the hotel's fire hose was useless.  "It just went drip, drip," he said.  His buddy, Seaman 1st Class Robert Might, helped people down a fire escape before being overcome by smoke and taken to Henrotin Hospital.  Two more sailors, Bernard Traska and Robert Higdon, dragged hose lines into the hotel and helped raise ladders.

Another hero of the fire was Fawn, a seeing-eye dog, who guided her owner down a fire escape. "I can't see and I can't smell, but I tasted the smoke and nudged Fawn," said Anita Blair of El Paso, Texas. "We followed the crowd around a corner, and then a man helped me and my dog over the windowsill and onto a fire escape landing."  Here is a photo of Fawn receiving an award from the Anti-Cruelty Society for heroism:

As the inferno grew, W. H. Bradfield, the assistant night manager, came across Julia Berry, the hotel's night operator still at the switchboard, alerting guests. He later said that he literally tried to drag her out, suffering facial burns in the process.  Knowing that the hotel did not have any sort of alarm system to alert guests of the danger, Berry replied, "No. I'm going to stay at my station.  We've got to give those folks on the top floors a chance."  Firemen ultimately found her burned body slumped over the switchboard, her earphones still in place, her fingers clutching a phone plug. Officials said that her selfless act saved hundreds of lives. 

Here's a photo of W. H. Bradfield recovering from his burns and smoke inhalation:

The remaining hotel guests were evacuated after Noon on June 6th after the fire was finally struck out.

The story of Julia Berry's heroism was broadcast around the world. 

Julia Berry's funeral was held on June 9, 1946 at St. Brendan's Catholic Church in Chicago. 

A shy, nervous lad of 16 blinked his eyes to hold back the tears as he moved slowly behind the coffin of his mother who became a heroine in the La Salle hotel fire.

The bronze coffin bearing Mrs. Julia Berry was carried into St. Brendan’s Roman Catholic Church (Note: closed 1988) filled with those who came as friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers and strangers. Mourners included a resident of the La Salle hotel who had been awakened every morning for five years by a telephone call from Mrs. Berry. 

They had all gone to pay final tribute yesterday to the woman who remained at her switchboard during the fire that others might live.

The boy, Jack, knelt in a pew, a handkerchief clutched tightly in one hand as the Rev. Edward Morgan spoke at the solemn requiem mass.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” Father Morgan said.  “Today we honor a mother who knew her duty and did it well…Here was a woman who knew her duty and elected to do even more.  It is always for us to find excuses not to do our duty.  She neither looked for nor found such excuses.”
Chicago Daily Tribune – June 9, 1946.

At the time of his mother's death, John Berry, a graduate of St. Brendan's Elementary School, was a freshman at the Chicago Vocational School.  

Sources noted that there were over 250 in attendance at the funeral, including Avery Brundage, chairman of the board of the La Salle-Madison Hotel Company, owners of the La Salle Hotel.  

Julia Curran Berry was buried next to her husband and her mother in the family plot at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery:

Note that the family name "Berry" is misspelled on the tombstone

Photos courtesy of Find a Grave volunteer William Kazupski

Among the many stories concerning the fire and its aftermath, this small article was in the Chicago Daily Tribune of June 6, 1946:


Mrs. Julia C. Berry, 41, heroic telephone operator who stayed at her switchboard in the La Salle hotel spreading the fire alarm until she died from smoke, will be considered for the Theodore N. Vail award, Illinois Telephone Company officials announced last night.

The award, established by Vail, late president of the American Telephone and Telegraph company, is given annually to those engaged in telephone work and who have performed outstanding acts of public service.

The telephone company said Mrs. Berry's devotion to duty "undoubtedly saved thousands of lives, altho it meant the loss of her own."  Mrs. Berry resisted rescue efforts of W. H. Bradfield, night manager, saying, "No. I'm going to stay at my station."  Bradfield later found her unconscious  He was burned trying to save her.  Mrs. Berry, a widow, lived with her son Jack, 6 [sic], at 6843 Elizabeth st.  She was chief night operator at the hotel. 

On June 8, 1946 the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that additional assistance would be provided to young Jack Berry in recognition of his late mother's sacrifice:


The Chicago Telephone Traffic Union, an independent organization of Chicago's 8,000 telephone operators, yesterday said it will provide John Joseph Berry, 16, son of  Mrs. Julia Curran Berry, 44, heroine of the La Salle hotel fire, the college education his mother had been striving to attain for him.  Mrs. Berry remained at the switchboard of the hotel, warning guests of the fire until she died.  

Mrs. Emma Jascot, president of the union, said that for two weeks starting next Monday, containers for voluntary contributions from telephone operators will be set up in all Chicago exchanges.  The money thus obtained will be turned over to the youth or his guardian for educational purposes.

Approved by Board.

The decision to collect the fund, Mrs. Jascot said, was made at a meeting of the union's executive board which also includes Miss Rose Tuttle, Miss Marie Daley, Miss Margaret Rowland, Miss Mary Pottmyer, Mrs. Lillian Amann, and Mrs. Ruth Broderick.

Many operators had called to purpose such a fund, Mrs. Jascot said.  Many of them had worked with Mrs. Berry when she was an employee of the Illinois Bell Telephone company 13 years ago, she said.

Remain at Posts.

"This is no idle gesture, but one that comes from the heart," Mrs. Jascot said.  " No one understands better than the telephone operators themselves how Mrs. Berry felt the night of the fire.  When something happens involving lives, telephone operators forget about their troubles and stick to their posts, doing the best job the know how.
Chicago Daily Tribune - June 8, 1946

The Tribune reported on July 16, 1946, that Julia Berry did win the Vail award:


A gold Vail medal and $1,000 has been awarded posthumously to Mrs. Julia C. Berry, telephone operator who remained at her switchboard and died in the La Salle hotel fire June 5, the American Telephone and Telegraph company said yesterday.  Presentation will be made to Mrs. Berry's son, John Joseph Berry, 15 [sic] of 6843 Elizabeth st., when the medal and scroll are completed.  Young Berry was orphaned by his mother's death.  The award in the 15th since the establishment in 1920 of the fund in memory of Theodore N. Vail, former president of the American Telephone and Telegraph company.
Chicago Daily Tribune - July 16, 1946.

I was unable to uncover any further information about John J. Berry Julia's son, other than that he died in London, England on October 15, 2005 at the age of 76.  If any of my readers has additional information on the life of John J. Berry (1929-2005), I would be happy to include it in an update of this article.

Julia Berry did not lead a life that would lend itself to having her photograph taken.  The only photo of her I was able to uncover was this copy of a small photo of her from the Tribune:

Julia Curran Berry - she gave her life so that others might live.  May she rest in peace. 

(Thanks to Michael Kelly for finding the 1920 census information.)