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 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.
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.
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.
~ Audrey ~