Catching Fire

No, this is not a review of the second book in the Hunger Games series. This is something much closer to home. The place is Pittsburgh. The time is April 10, 1845. Yes. 1845. That was 170 years ago.

Do you know what happened in the Burgh 170 years ago? From the title of this piece you can probably guess. On this date, a fire, hot and horrible, marched through the city. In April, 1845, the city’s population of about 20,000 had seen no rain for several weeks. Black dust and soot from hundreds of coal fires, plus the addition of flour dust and cotton fibers from local industries created an incendiary mix. Add to that a warm wind which gusted out of the west and the stage was set for a disaster.

On April 10th, about noon, a lone fire left unattended sparked and set nearby structures ablaze. The wind carried the flames from one wooden structure to the next and most of the buildings in the city were constructed of wood. Pittsburgh’s ten fire companies were no match for the inferno. Because of the lack of rain, the rivers were low as was the one existing reservoir. The firemen’s leather hoses disintegrated in the heat of the blaze. The wind carried flaming debris up and over the city.

Church bells sounded the alarm as families snatched their valuables and fled to the shoreline of the Monongahela River. But the fire had consumed any boats still moored nearby and escape across the river by that means was now impossible. The only bridge across the water was the covered wooden Monongahela Bridge at Smithfield Street. This served as a conduit to safety until it also caught fire. It burned in fifteen minutes. The residents of Birmingham (now the South Side) fought desperately to keep the flames at bay on their side of the river.

The Monongahela River and what remained of the wooden covered Monongahela Bridge - photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (all rights reserved).

The Monongahela River and what remained of the wooden covered Monongahela Bridge – photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (all rights reserved).

The huge warehouses along the shore, filled with bales of cotton, barrels of gun powder, and casks of molasses and coffee, caught fire and exploded. People abandoned their property and fled north toward the Allegheny River and safety. Help arrived from Allegheny City (now our North Side) as many volunteers rowed across the Allegheny River to help. One of those volunteers was Stephen Foster.

The fire crawled east along the streets from Ferry (now Stanwix) to just beyond Ross Street and spread from Fourth Avenue to the Mon River, devouring everything in its path. For over nine hours (from noon until 9 PM) the fire feasted as wood burned, glass melted, and brick and stone cracked under the intense heat.

This sketch shows part of the city and the Monongahela Bridge ablaze. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

This sketch shows part of the city and the Monongahela Bridge ablaze. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

Homes, businesses, banks, churches and the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh) succumbed to the inferno. The flames destroyed about one third of the city and displaced about 12,000 residents. Surprisingly, only two persons died. Afterwards, the mood of the city was one of shock followed by despair. The desolation was overwhelming as buildings continued to smoke and burn and collapse for days.

Painting by William Coventry Wall entitled "View of the Great Fire of Pittsburgh."  Original in color is held by the Carnegie Museum of Art. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

Painting by William Coventry Wall entitled “View of the Great Fire of Pittsburgh.” Original in color is held by the Carnegie Museum of Art. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

But rebuilding began soon after. Once the ashes cooled, debris was cleared away and new homes and buildings were erected with better materials. The city renewed itself. Life continued at the confluence of the three rivers. For decades, the city remembered the Great Fire annually by the tolling of a bell on April 10th.

Much has happened since then to erase the memory of this event. But take a moment this year, the 170th anniversary, to remember what was once viewed as Pittsburgh’s greatest catastrophe.

Local author, Gary Link, used the great fire as the setting for his compelling novel, The Burnt District (2003).

To learn more about the Great Fire, visit the Pennsylvania Department where you will find books, articles, and photographs related to this and other significant local events. The staff on the third floor of the Main Library in Oakland looks forward to assisting you.

Looking Toward the Point After the Fire,  from a painting by William Coventry Wall. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

Looking toward the Point after the fire from a painting by William Coventry Wall. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

~ Audrey ~

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Catching Fire

  1. So grateful for the historical content of real blogs like this… thank you… an insight I won’t forget…

  2. I had never heard about this fascinating piece of Pittsburgh history, so thanks! I wonder why the Chicago Fire is so famous and Pittsburgh’s is a lost memory. Maybe we need to write a song…..

  3. 서대

    Reblogged this on 서대문오피↙girlie↗밤전클럽 and commented:
    good

  4. 포항

    Reblogged this on 포항오피『girlie』밤전핸플 and commented:
    amazing view

  5. Suzi W.

    Only two people died??? Thanks for a great piece of history.

  6. SD Gates

    I had no idea there was a “Great Fire” in Pittsburgh. I grew up in Chicago, so I only had ever heard of that “Great Fire”. Great post!!!

  7. Amanda

    I learned about this at a lecture “The History of the Pittsburgh Water Supply” hosted by the Lawrenceville Historical Society. I may be misremembering, but I think the lecturer said the Birmingham residents dynamited or blew up the bridge to keep the fire from reaching them.

  8. Sheila

    Excellent blog!

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