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“Fire, Pestilence, and Death: St. Louis, 1849,” by Christopher Alan Gordon, Missouri Historical Society Press, St. Louis, 2018. This 280-page paperback details the calamities that St. Louis encountered in 1849. That included a major fire, the cholera epidemic, and the gold rush. Gordon follows with the story of several crimes, the rise of attorney Edward Bates, and slavery in Missouri. Extensive use of newspaper reports is made as well as other accounts such as diaries.

In this period, St. Louis was a bustling city driven not only by commerce associated with steamboats, but also by immigration, and westward migration. Many passed through on their way to western trails. Then came the gold rush. Gold discoveries in California were confirmed by the Fall of 1848, but most waited for Spring to make the trek. With better weather hundreds of gold seekers began to arrive many by steamship. By April 15, a thousand were reported in two months, followed by 120 on April 16, 150 on April 18 and 400 more on April 20. Provisioning the prospectors was a business opportunity. Wagon makers are best documented, but one suspects those with supplies, equipment, horses, and mules also did well.

Gordon tells of the Matilda, a sailing ship built in St. Louis for the gold rush with plans to sail around South America for the west coast. She was sold at auction on May 28 to pay creditors. Some say she eventually did sail to San Francisco, but sank on arrival.

The major cholera epidemic also struck St. Louis in 1849. Cholera is characterized by severe diarrhea and vomiting resulting in dehydration. Victims turn blue and can be dead in 24 hours. The disease first appeared in New Orleans in December of 1848. It gradually made its way up river carried by steamboats. During the winter months, total deaths reported ranged from 37 to 92 per week including occasional cholera deaths. In March and April the numbers rose sharply. From June 25 to July 16, cholera deaths ranged from 589 to 639 per week. Thereafter, the numbers tapered off. The disease had run its course.

This was the age when disease was thought caused by miasmas, or bad air. That cholera was caused by contaminated water was not established until the work of John Snow in 1855 in London. That germs caused disease, ie germ theory, was proposed in this time frame, but proof took years, and the medical community was slow to accept the idea.

At first, the disease was associated with steamboats. The poor and working class seemed most vulnerable. Stories are told of steamboats that buried their dead in unmarked graves on the banks of the river. Those who lived away from the river were thought to be safe.

As the disease intensified, confidence wavered. People fled the city. That included most of city government. As they left, they authorized an unelected Committee of Public Health to deal with the disease. On June 27, the committee closed schools and converted them to temporary hospitals. They appointed physicians for the hospitals and health inspectors for the wards. Haulers were hired to collect “slop” from the wards. In the evening fires filled the streets with sulfur smoke thought to have a purifying effect on bad air. Orphanages were not yet established, but the committee sought homes to adopt the victims. On July 3, Arsenal Island was established as a quarantine site. Steamboat passengers were checked for signs of illness.

As the epidemic subsided, attention turned to the numbers. The official number of cholera deaths in St. Louis in 1849 is 4547. At best the numbers are approximate.

The other major calamity was the great fire. On May 18, 1849, a steamboat tied to the levy caught fire. The levy was the center of commerce. As many as 40 steamboats tied up at the levy to load and unload. Warehouses storing goods were nearby. Products like hemp and lumber were stacked on the levy. Steamboats of the era were wooden and burned easily. On the night of May 18, an attempt to let the burning steamship drift down river resulted in setting other steamboats afire. Embers filled the air. St. Louis was mostly wood frame buildings. The fire spread quickly driven by a strong wind from the northeast.

St. Louis had 10 volunteer fire companies. Apparently all used wagon mounted pumps to pump from the city water system. (Although steam pumpers were invented, St. Louis fire companies had none until later.) A valiant effort was made to control the fire, but the city water system failed. They were able to save the Old Cathedral. In the end, buildings were blown-up with gunpowder to create a firebreak. In the process, Capt. Thomas Targee was killed when a keg of gunpowder exploded prematurely.

Fred Hodes’ book, “Rising on the River: St. Louis, 1822 to 1850,” (Patrice Press, Tooele, UT, 2009) also describes the cholera epidemic and fire, but more concisely. A map of the fire damage is reproduced in Gordon’s book, but redrawn for greater clarity in Hodes’ book, p 698. The fire mostly destroyed 24 blocks of buildings, along eight blocks of the levy to Second Street. Hodes lists 23 steamboats destroyed as published in the People’s Organ. The damage was estimated at $6.1MM, some of which was insured.

Gordon describes the efforts of people to save their belongings. The streets filled with people. Haulers could be hired to move merchandise, but at exorbitant rates. Plus no one knew where would be safe. Some loads were moved multiple times.

A chapter on slavery describes the misery. Missouri had sought to prevent free blacks from settling in the state, but a provision of the Missouri Compromise overruled that idea. After the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion in Virginia in 1831, tensions rose. In Missouri free blacks were required to go before a judge to receive a “free Negro bond” and be licensed to reside in the state. Abolitionists encouraged slaves to escape, but crossing the Mississippi was risky. Ferry boat operators often reported escaped slaves. In St. Louis, slaves were sold on the steps of the courthouse.

Gordon also tells of a bank robbery. Burglars were able were able to penetrate three thick walls in a bank vault to attack a heavy safe undetected. The perps fled east to Illinois, but were captured. Edward Bates came to prominence as attorney for the defense in a well known murder trial. Bates was candidate for the presidency at the Republican convention in 1860. He lost the nomination to Abraham Lincoln, and then served as his Attorney General.

The last chapter summarizes the changes that resulted from the events of 1849. The arrival of the railroads made it possible to commute from green leafy suburbs away from the risks of fire and disease. Kirkwood and then Webster Groves were created for this purpose in 1863. They were served by accommodation trains on the Pacific Railroad. Rural cemeteries became popular. Bellfontaine and Calvary Cemeteries were created away from the city. Other cemeteries were moved. Chouteau’s Pond and Kayser’s Lake were drained, and sewers were built. The water system was improved. Building codes were revised to require fire resistant materials. A paid fire department replaced volunteers in 1857.

This book provides a detailed look at life in St. Louis at the peak of the steamboat era, before the arrival of the railroads. Those who enjoy history will want to give it a look. Maps, photos, daguerreotype reproductions, index.
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