The Great St. Louis Fire of 1849

Ruins_of_1849_St_Louis_Fire_by_Thomas_Easterly_from_wikipedia
Ruins of 1849 fire – St. Louis  Photo: T.M.Easterly

For the congregation at Trinity Lutheran Church and its pastor, Rev. C.F.W. Walther, the cholera epidemic of 1849 first hit home when 15 year old Margaretha Vitter died of that disease on May 9th.  That disease would bring much death and mourning to the city of St. Louis for the next several months.  And if that was not going to be enough, on this day, May 17th of that year, a devastating fire struck the downtown area of that growing city.

The fire started on the riverboat White Cloud and spread to other riverboats.  The fire also jumped onshore and began raging among the many wooden buildings in the area which is now occupied by the Gateway Arch.  By the time it was over, the fire had destroyed 23 steamboats and caused $5 million in property damage.  The firefighters of St. Louis only got this fire under control after blasting several businesses to create a line that the flames could not cross.  It was while blasting that a captain of the fire department lost his life.  This was the first recorded incident where a fire fighter lost his life while fighting a fire.

Below is a map which shows where the fire occurred.  The gray area on the right portion of the map shows the area of the fire.

St. Louis 1849 fire map

In 1843, Trinity Lutheran Church dedicated a new church building which was located on Lombard Street.  Rev. Walther also lived across the street from that church.  As near as I can tell, this fire must have come within three or four blocks of that church and home.  It must have been a frightening time for the residents of this area.  The fire did not get started till after dark, and the inferno must have lit up that city.

Almost certainly there were members of Trinity who lost their homes or their places of business.  And later, the cholera epidemic was going to cause thousands of deaths.

There were several lessons learned from this fire and the cholera epidemic.

  1. After this fire, the city declared that new buildings in the riverfront area had to be built using brick or stone.  This would prevent such widespread fires in the future.
  2. A new sewage system was constructed to provide for better sanitation for this city.  This would reduce the chance of experiencing epidemics which were caused by water born diseases.

This fire does not get much attention these days.  One of the reasons is that a much more catastrophic fire later occurred in Chicago which caused more destruction and much more loss of life.

There are many websites which contain accounts of this event.  I found this one to be fascinating.  Click HERE .  It is a newspaper story that was being published at the time of the fire.  I think it is well worth reading.


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