The St. Patrick's Day Chicago Dance Hall Collapse - March 17, 1948 - An Engineer's Aspect


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Sunday, March 11, 2012

The St. Patrick's Day Chicago Dance Hall Collapse - March 17, 1948

"Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes."  ~John Dewey

On the night of March 17, 1948, a St. Patrick's Day dance was underway on the third floor of a recreation hall  when it collapsed under the weight of an estimated 500 dancers.

One woman was killed and 100 others were wounded in the tragedy.

A few days after the collapse, it was discovered that the recreation hall was operating without a license.

Licensing a building for a particular use can seem like an excuse for bureaucrats to wield a little power and make life more difficult.  In reality, engineers design the support structures in buildings to accommodate the loads for which the building was originally intended.  This factors into licensing.

Many collapses I have researched are caused by overloading.  In these cases, it may seem that the building was under-engineered when in reality, the owners, operators, patrons, or remodelers have changed the use of the building without having the engineering updated.

It is vital, when planning to change the use of a structure, to have a licensed engineer peruse the original engineering.  Money, reputations, time, and most importantly, lives can be saved.

Following are newspaper accounts and photographs associated with the St. Patrick's Day Chicago Dance Hall Collapse:


The Nashua Telegraph, Nashua, New Hampshire, Thursday, March 18, 1948.

One Killed, 100
Hurt in Dance
Hall Collapse

Chicago, March 18 (AP) -- One woman was killed and more than 100 persons were injured last night when a large section of a third-floor dance hall collapsed under the weight of about 500 persons attending a St. Patrick's Day celebration.

Twelve of the 92 persons who were treated at six hospitals were reported in from serious to critical condition.  Several other persons were given first aid treatment at the scene.

The dance and party, attended by men, women and children, was in the top floor of a three-story brick building at 3239 North Clark st near the busy intersection of Clark st and Belmont av.  It was sponsored by the Connaught Men's Social club.

Hundreds of the merrymakers were walking off the floor at the end of a dance number when a large section of the floor collapsed.  Scores were hurtled headlong to the second floor.  As the floor settled, parts of the false roof caved in.

Image:  The roof of a dance hall caved in on dancers and billiard players on the night of March 17, 1948, during a St. Patrick's Day dance in Chicago.  (Source:  Original photograph.)

Women and children screamed as they were pitched down a slide which was formed by a large section in the middle of the floor.  Groups of men formed chains and helped scores of persons to climb up the slanting floor.  Others tied ropes to chairs and threw them down for those not injured to climb back to the uncollapsed section of the third floor.

More than 200 policemen, 30 ambulances and six patrol wagons were rushed to the scene.  A crowd estimated by police at 10,000 impeded the rescue work and ambulances inched their way to the building to remove the injured to hospitals.

The Hutchinson News-Herald, Hutchinson, Kansas, Thursday, March 18, 1948, page 1.

One Killed, 100
Hurt In Dance
Hall Collapse

Chicago (AP) -- One woman was reported killed Wednesday night and 100 other persons injured, police estimated when a section of a third floor dance hall caved in during a St. Patrick's day fete.

The dance hall was in a building occupied by the Lakeview bowling alley.  An attendant at the Illinois Masonic hospital, where the victims were taken, said there were "too many" injured being brought there to estimate their number.

The hospital issued a call for extra nurses and doctors.

Louis Blanchi, a tavern-keeper near the scene, said the "roof came down first.  It just sort of caved inward.  There were 1,200 people in the dance hall--men, women and children.  Their weight on the floor just sort of pulled the roof in on top of them."

Bianchi said ambulances were lined up for a block at the scene.  He said there was no fire, but there were "a lot of casualties."

"Ambulances are going by to the hospital right along," he said.

Bianchi added that a priest from nearby St. Sebastian's church had been summoned to the scene.

A crowd estimated at 10,000 soon gathered in front of the building which fronts 300 feet on North Clark street.  The section is in the busy Belmont area.

Chief Ray Crane made the estimate of the casualties.  He said most were given first aid treatment at the scene and released.

Image:  A man rescues a child who was with her parents at  3239 N. Clark Street when the roof collapsed during a St. Patrick's Day dance on the night of March 17, 1948.  (Source:  Original photograph.)

About 30 or 40 feet of the floor collapsed, Crane said, onto the second floor bowling alley.

Estimates of the number attending the [dance] sponsored by the Connaughtmen Irish club ranged up to 1,200.  Crane added, however, that he doubted if there were more than 300 in the dance hall and bowling alley at the time.

Crane said there was one unidentified woman dead in the debris but that firemen had been unable to remove the body as yet.

ROOF COLLAPSES ON HOLIDAY DANCERS - CHICAGO FIREMEN clean up debris left as roof and third floor of dance hall collapse, killing one girl and injuring 100 of the 350 persons at a holiday party. -- Upper photograph caption:  "Firemen raise fallen roof with jacks to search dance hall."  Lower photograph caption:  "One celebrant is pinned beneath rubble of collapsed roof." (International Soundphotos)  (Source:  "The Logansport Pharos-Tribune," Logansport, Indiana, Friday Evening, March 26, 1948, page 10.)


The Racine Journal-Times, Racine, Wisconsin, Thursday, March 18, 1948, page 24.

Floor Collapse
Injures Dancers

CHICAGO--(UP)--Fire department authorities sought causes for the collapse of a dance floor where nearly 500 persons were celebrating St. Patrick's day.

One woman was killed in the accident and 85 persons, many of them children, injured, three critically.

Police said the victim, identified as Mrs. John Hunt, 35, Chicago, was pinned under a support girder which collapsed with the floor.

Earle Downes, fire department attorney, said the investigation would seek to determine whether the third floor dance hall where the Connaughtmen's Social Club sponsored the dance had more than the legal number of persons.

John Jenkins, manager of the dance hall and the billiard parlor and bowling alleys located in the same building, said that larger dances had been held on previous occasions without mishap.

Jenkins, who was in the cloak room near the floor at the time of the accident, said he heard a tre- 
mendous crackling noise and saw the ceiling start to sag.

"Almost at the same time, the floor slowly gave way and people began sliding toward the lowest spot.  The floor broke loose completely on one side and the people were thrown into the billiard room directly below."

50 Escape Injury.

The flying plaster from the ceiling and the drop into the second floor billiard room were responsible for most of the injuries, police said, although many of those not trapped on the broken floor suffered minor injuries in trying to escape from the room.

At least 50 persons were in the billiard room when the dance floor began to cave in, but there was enough time for all to escape without injury.

Image:  Mr. John Hunt of Chicago mourns his wife after rescue workers freed her body from a fallen rafter that pinned her under the rubble when the roof of the dancehall at 3239 N. Clark Street collapsed during a St. Patrick's Day dance, March 17, 1948. (Source:  Original photograph.)

The Pottstown Mercury, Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Friday Morning, March 19, 1948, page 2.

Victims Recovering 
After Floor Collapses

CHICAGO, March 18 (AP) -- More than a score of persons were recovering today in hospitals from injuries suffered last night when a large section of floor of a third story dance hall collapsed.  One woman was killed and more than a 100 other persons were injured, most of them given first aid only.

Police estimated "about 500" persons were attending a St. Patrick's day dance in the north side all wen a large section of floor tilted and dropped to the floor below.  Hundreds of dancers, just leaving the floor at conclusion of a dance number, slid into the hole.

An inquest was continued to April 6 so representatives of the building department, fire department and city license department could be present.  No direct testimony tending to fix the cause of the collapse was taken.


The Waukesha Daily Freeman, Waukesha, Wisconsin, Friday, March 19, 1948, page 2.

Dance Hall Collapse 
Blamed on Overcrowd

CHICAGO, (UP) -- City officials said today that a recreation hall was operating without a license when its dance floor collapsed, killing one woman and injuring nearly 100 persons.

Roy T. Christiansen, city building commissioner, attributed the cave-in to over-crowding.  He said 500 dancers were on the floor at the time.

He also said that John R. Jenkins, majority owner of the building, never had applied for a license to operate a dance hall.  Managers of a bowling alley on the second floor applied for a license Jan. 28 but were turned down because of insufficient exits.