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St. Louis Steamboat Blaze

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Steamboats Burning 1849

The Burning Of St. Louis And 23 Steamboats

By James Donahue

The City of St. Louis, Missouri, was swept by a terrible conflagration on the night of May 17, 1849, that not only destroyed a large part of the town, but destroyed a line of 23 river boats. The fire still remembered as the darkest moment in the city’s history.

It was the first fire in United States history that a fire fighter was known to have been killed in the line of duty. Captain Thomas Targee died while trying to use explosives to blast a fire break.

St. Louis was a major port city located near the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The California gold rush was on and this was the last major point where travelers could get supplies on their way west. Steamboats from both rivers stopped there regularly. The city of about 63,000 was booming.

There are various accounts as to just where the fire started. One story said it began about 9 p.m. in a building at the Levee. Another said the fire began in the paddle wheel steamboat White Cloud, moored at the foot of Cherry Street.

The fire quickly spread from riverboat to riverboat and jumped from building to building as it ravaged the town. The volunteer fire department brought nine hand engines and hose reel wagons to the scene but the fire fighters were no match for the conflagration that developed that night.

The fire, fanned by a strong wind from the northwest, spread from building to building starting from the Levee to Main Street and west across Olive Street and south to Market Street. While fire fighters battled the fire from that side, the burning steamboat White Cloud burned through its mooring lines then drifted down the Mississippi River, setting 22 other steam boats, flatboats and barges ablaze.

An old newspaper report described the scene on the river: “The fleet of vessels being loosened from their moorings were driven about, the sport of the wind and the waves, with nobody on board to control their motions. Within half an hour . . . twenty-three of them had been surrendered to the fury of the flames. The spectacle was awful but magnificent, a spectacle to which no pencil could do justice, but not the less dreadful and horrifying to every spectator.”

To get the fire under control in the city, fire fighters brought in kegs of black powder and started blowing up buildings in a last-ditch effort to save a portion of the business district. After six of the buildings were blown, Captain Targee was killed while spreading powder in a music store that was the last of the buildings to be destroyed.

Before it was over the fire claimed another two lives, destroyed 430 buildings, 23 steamboats, nine flat boats and several barges. As a result of the disaster, a new building code was adopted requiring new buildings to be erected from either stone or brick. The city also installed a new water and sewer system.

The vessels lost in the fire included the American Eagle, the Alice, Alexander Hamilton, Acadia, Boreas No. 3, Belle Isle, Eliza Stewart, Endora, Edward Bates, Frolic, Kit Carson, Mameluke, Mandan, Montauk, Martha, Prairie State, Redwing, St. Peters, Sarah, Taglioui, Timour, and the White Cloud.