St. Louis, Missouri, did not fare well in 1849. April was the beginning of a cholera epidemic that lasted through August and wiped out approximately ten percent of the city’s population. On the evening of May 17, a second catastrophe struck--a fire threatened to destroy the entire business district as well.
The fire started about 9 p.m. aboard the paddle wheel steamboat “The White Cloud” which was moored at the foot of Cherry Street. The 1,000-member volunteer fire department responded immediately with their nine hand engines and hose reel wagons, but the fire burned through the moorings and the burning ship began its slow three-mile drift downstream. Along the way, it set 22 other steam boats on fire as well as some flatboats and barges. The flames soon leaped to shore and had everything on the waterfront levee on fire for blocks. After eight hours, at least five city blocks had been completely gutted and the volunteers were demoralized and exhausted. They feared the entire business district would be lost.
Desperate times require desperate measures. Six businesses in front of the fire were chosen and loaded with kegs of black powder. The plan was to blow them up in succession to create a firebreak. Captain Thomas B. Targee of Missouri Company No. 5 was spreading powder in the last building, the Phillips Music store, when something went wrong. The powder exploded prematurely and Captain Targee was killed.
It took a total of eleven hours to get the fire under control. In all, St. Louis lost 430 buildings, 23 steamboats, and over a dozen other boats. Captain Targee and two civilians were killed.
After the fire, a new building code was created to help prevent another such disaster. New structures were required to be built of stone or brick. An extensive new water and sewage system was also started.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News for over ten years. She has covered the War Between the States, U.S. history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.firstname.lastname@example.org.