Where do urban legends come from? I suspect most of them are caused by simple confusion. Someone makes an unwarranted assumption or misremembers a simple fact, and that person passes on the misinformation as authoritative truth. Last year I came across an interesting urban legend, one which I’m guessing is new.
Every year the Chicago Architecture Foundation puts on Open House Chicago, an event where around 150 significant buildings in the city allow visitors to see areas that may not usually be available to the public. This last year my wife and I went to Union Station, the grand train station most people would be familiar with from movies like The Silver Streak and The Untouchables. The Great Hall looks like this.
Off to the right in this picture is the concourse that leads to all the trains and the food court and such. What I didn’t know is that behind the wall to the left is an enormous area, maybe as large as the Great Hall, that’s been unused for nearly 35 years!
Here’s a couple pictures from that area.
You’ll notice the barbed wire. That’s around construction, apparently a restaurant will be moving into the space. The door in the back leads back to the Great Hall.
There’s also an enormous room that used to be the ladies’ lounge. Now they use it to store props from Tim Burton movies.
So why was all this essentially abandoned? The volunteer who was there to tell us about the building explained that there had been a fire in 1980, and the area had been disused ever since.
Moreover, the fire had been started by people filming a movie starring Gary Coleman!
Now that’s an interesting factoid. My wife knew that there was a movie where Gary Coleman was playing a homeless kid living in a train station locker, and sure enough that must be the movie the volunteer was talking about. On the Right Track came out in 1981, so the timing was exactly right.
Except it’s not true at all. The fire, which happened on July 26, 1980 had nothing to do with any movie being filmed in the station. At least nothing like that is mentioned in news stories about the fire, and let’s face it, if Gary Coleman was involved in something that happened in 1980, it got mentioned.
So where did the volunteer get the idea that the filming of On the Right Track had started the fire? I have no idea. I dove pretty deep into Google, and I couldn’t find any previous association between the fire and the movie. So I’m guessing we saw the start of a new urban legend, one which currently only exists as an oral tradition (and this web page).
While I was researching the fire/movie connection, I came up with another great example of the fallibility of memory, even among people directly involved with the events being remembered. On bulletin boards devoted to train travel I found a couple of discussions by a user who goes by “Gilbert B Norman” or “GBNorman” who said he worked in Union Station when the fire occurred, and though he wasn’t there the day of the fire he had to move his office several times. He also said, with no equivocation, that the only person who died in the fire was “a vagrant.” In another thread Mr. Norman repeated the assertion that the only casualty was a vagrant (he magnanimously admits that this still counts as “a human life”) and the rest of the thread devolves into people theorizing, and then flat-out deciding that the vagrant caused the fire.
Did a vagrant die in the fire, let alone start it? Nope. According the Chicago Tribune the only fatality in the fire was a budget analyst for the Conrail freight agency, and they gave his home address as a building in what’s a pretty swanky neighborhood today, Lake Shore Drive and Diversey. It may not have been so expensive in 1980, but I’m going to assume that even back then no one who lived in a tower on Lake Shore Drive would be considered a vagrant.