Great Fire of St. Louis Missouri
The St. Louis Fire of 1849 was a devastating fire that occurred on May 17, 1849, and destroyed a significant part of St. Louis, Missouri, and many of the steamboats using the Mississippi River and Missouri River.
This was the first fire in United States history in which it is known that a firefighter was killed in the line of duty. Captain Thomas B. Targee was killed while trying to blast a fire break.
The firestorm added misery to the city's worst single disaster, a cholera epidemic that would kill at least 4,317 people. The May 17 newspapers were filled with news of death.
St. Louis was ill-prepared for the events of the evening of May 17, 1849, when a fire started on the steamboat White Cloud. The boat was moored at the foot of Cherry Street, later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Avenue, and located to the north of where the Gateway Arch stands today. No one knows how the fire began. An 1850 investigation into the fire claimed that sparks from the smokestacks of a passing riverboat lodged "on a newly painted boat and [were] favored by a high wind blowing on them." At the time of the fire, the St. Louis Volunteer Fire Department had just nine companies and about 1,000 members. Equipment consisted of hand-operated pumps and ladders on hand-drawn carts and horse-drawn wagons.
The flames leaped from the burning steamboats to buildings on the shore and were soon burning everything on the waterfront levee for four blocks. The fire extended to Main Street westward and crossed Olive Street. It completely gutted the three blocks between Olive and 2nd Street and went as far south as Market Street. It then ignited a large copper shop three blocks away and burned out two more city blocks. The volunteer firemen, after laboring for eight hours, were nearly completely demoralized and exhausted. The entire business district of the city appeared doomed unless something was done. Six businesses in front of the fire were loaded with kegs of black powder and blown up in succession. Captain Thomas B. Targee of Missouri Company No. 5 died while he was spreading powder into Phillips Music store, the last store chosen to be blown up.
This fire was the largest and most destructive fire St. Louis has ever experienced. When the fire was finally contained after 11 hours, 430 buildings were destroyed, 23 steamboats along with over a dozen other boats were lost, and three people had died including a fire captain. As a result of these fires, a new building code required new structures to be built of stone or brick and an extensive new water and sewage system was started.