The Great St. Louis Fire Begins: May 17, 1849

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A fire that would destroy a significant portion of St. Louis broke out on this date in 1849. It began when a paddle-wheeler, White Cloud, caught fire at the riverfront.

The St. Louis Fire of 1849 was one of the most devastating fires in the city’s history, significantly shaping its future development. The fire quickly spread from White Cloud on to other steamboats, igniting a chain reaction. Due to strong winds, the flames leaped from boat to boat and eventually reached the waterfront, setting the city’s downtown business district ablaze.

At this time, St. Louis was a major transportation hub with a bustling riverfront. The city’s wooden buildings and tightly packed structures provided ample fuel for the fire, exacerbating the disaster. Efforts to combat the blaze were hampered by limited firefighting resources and the sheer intensity of the flames. The fire raged for nearly eleven hours, destroying 23 steamboats and 430 buildings. The financial loss was estimated at over $5 million, a staggering amount for the period.

During the blaze, Captain Thomas B. Targee, a firefighter, was killed while trying to create firebreak by bringing down buildings with explosives. He is thought to be one of the first firefighters killed in the line of duty in US history, and Targee Street in St. Louis is named for him.

The aftermath of the fire led to significant changes in St. Louis. The city implemented stricter building codes, requiring the use of fire-resistant materials to prevent such widespread destruction in the future. The disaster also underscored the need for improved fire-fighting infrastructure, leading to the establishment of a more organized and equipped fire department. The 1849 fire remains a pivotal event in St. Louis history, highlighting both the vulnerabilities and resilience of the growing city.