The Great Fire of 1845

Pittsburgh in flames - April 10, 1845.

One of the worst disasters to befall the residents of the City of Pittsburgh was the Great Fire of 1845. The holocaust began at approximately noon on April 10, 1845. It started in an icehouse on Second Avenue and spread throughout the Golden Triangle. By the time the flames had subsided over two-thirds of the city, nearly sixty acres of real estate, had burnt to the ground, destroying 1200 buildings and leaving 12,000 homeless. The Monongahela Bridge (the predecessor of the modern day Smithfield Street Bridge) was reduced to ashes.

The early-19th century brought rapid growth to the city of Pittsburgh. By 1845, it's population was over 20,000, and had swelled due to the recent construction of the Pennsylvania Canal. The city struggled to keep up with the increasing population, and sub-standard building practices resulted in a patchwork of large homes and businesses interspersed with rows of tightly packed wooden structures that housed the largely immigrant labor force.

Map of Pittsburgh in 1845.
An 1845 street map of the City of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh's infrastructure was ill-suited for the type of population and construction expansion experienced in the early-1800s. One of the main problems facing the growing city was poor water pressure and the insufficient equipping of its ten volunteer fire companies. In 1844 the city had completed construction of a new reservoir. The water lines and pumpers, however, were inadequate to fight a major blaze. There were just two water mains to service the entire city. To make matters worse, the fire companies did not have enough hose to reach the center of the city from the rivers.

The iron industry had grown to account for a quarter of the city's industrial output. The furnaces of iron and glass industries filled the air with coal dust and soot. The atmosphere was saturated by the smoke from the factories. Other industries contributed to this volatile mix, releasing flour dust and cotton fibers into the air, which settled throughout the city. The months of March and April saw little rainfall, leaving the new reservoir dangerously low. These conditions, coupled with gale-force winds, made Pittsburgh a prime target for the disaster that would strike at mid-day on April 10.

Pittsburgh in 1845, before the Great Fire.
The City of Pittsburgh in the Spring of 1845, shortly before the Great Fire that engulfed the city center.

April 10, 1845 was a warm but windy day. Just before noon, Ann Brooks, who worked on Ferry Street, lit a fire to heat wash water and briefly left it unattended. A spark from this fire ignited a nearby ice shed. The fire companies responded, but a lack of water pressure left them helpless to fight the flames. The fire quickly spread to nearby buildings and to the Globe Cotton Factory.

The bells of the Third Presbyterian Church sounded the original alarm, but the church itself was only saved by dropping its burning wooden cornice into the street. The stone walls of the church provided barrier to prevent spread of fire towards the north and west. The winds pushed the flames to the southeast and fueled the already raging inferno.

One witness described the scene: “The roar of the flames was terrific, and their horrible glare, as they leaped through the dense black clouds of smoke, sweeping earth and sky, was appalling.”

By 2:00 PM, the fire was out of control and many of those who had been fighting the flames fled to save their own possessions. During the height of the disaster, between 2:00 and 4:00, the fire was consuming one block after another. The ocean of flame consumed wood, melted metal and glass, and collapsed stone and brick. The Bank of Pittsburgh, thought to be fireproof, fell victim when the heat of the fire shattered the windows and melted the zinc roof. The molten metal ignited the wooden interior and burned everything except the contents of the vault. The grand Monongahela House, considered the finest hotel in town, fell victim when its cupola caught fire and collapsed. Everything in the fire's path was destroyed.

The Great Fire of 1845.    The Great Fire of 1845.
The raging firestorm lasted for nearly seven hours and consumed sixty acres of real estate.

Many residents retreated to their homes and removed their belongings. Some fled to the high ground east of the city center, an area which remained free of the flames. Others fled south to the Monongahela River and were able to cross the Monongahela Bridge, which connected the city to the southern bank of the river. Unfortunately, the flames soon spread to the wood-covered structure and it ignited. The bridge was fully consumed in about fifteen minutes, leaving nothing but its supporting pylons. Those counting on riverboats to take their belongings suffered a worse fate. The boats that did not flee caught fire and burned, leaving the refugees to pile their belongings on the riverbank. Most of this material was burned by the advancing flames, stolen or looted.

The docks and warehouses on the waterfront were also consumed. Attempts to save materials by bringing them to the riverbank only delayed their destruction. The advancing fire followed the river into Pipetown, an area of worker's housing and factories, again spreading destruction. It only halted when the winds died down around 6:00. By 7:00pm the fire had run its course in the city itself, and began to die off. The Pipetown factories continued burning until 9:00pm.

Devastated Pittsburgh after
 the Great Fire of 1845.    Devastated Pittsburgh after
 the Great Fire of 1845.
Pittsburgh was devastated by the Great Fire. Two-thirds of the city was damaged and 1200 buildings destroyed.

The following morning, April 11, 1845, saw over one-third of the city center a desolate scene that included smoldering rubble, a forest of chimneys and shattered walls amid a heap of ruins. The fire had consumed an area measuring approximately sixty acres. The entire Second Ward of the city was shattered. The fire destroyed 1200 buildings, while displacing 2000 families and roughly 12,000 individuals from their homes. On the hills surrounding the city could be seen piles of household belongings. Surprisingly, only two people perished as a result of the disaster. Damages were estimated at $12,000,000 ($399 million in 2019 dollars), almost none of which was recoverable, as all but one of Pittsburgh's insurers were bankrupted by the disaster.

The first response of the city was one of despair, as seen in reports to newspapers and in initial recollections. "It is impossible for any one, although a spectator of the dreaded scene of destruction which presented to the eyes of our citizens on the memorable tenth of April, to give more than a faint idea of the terrible overwhelming calamity which then befell our city, destroying in a few hours the labor of many years, and blasting suddenly the cherished hopes of hundreds – we may say thousands – of our citizens, who, but that morning were contented in the possession of comfortable homes and busy workshops. The blow was so sudden and unexpected as to unnerve even the most self possessed."

Pittsburgh on the day after the
Great Fire of April 10, 1845.
Pittsburgh on the morning after the disaster. Local industry boomed during Pittsburgh's reconstruction.

This sullen mood did not last long and the city was soon rebuilding. The sudden loss of so many structures resulted in skyrocketing property values and a construction boom that quickly replaced many of the destroyed structures. After two months, five hundred new buildings had been erected in the burned area. Although the new homes, warehouses and shops were built of better materials and updated architectural standards, many of the problems that led to the disaster, wooden structures and dirty, soot-filled air, remained a constant source of worry.

If there was a bright side to the whole nightmare, it was the economic boom that ensued as citizens and businesses struggled to recover. The market for replacement homes and household articles invigorated local industries and spurred the city to greater growth.

The Golden Triangle in 1849.
By 1849, four years after the blaze, the City of Pittsburgh was well on it's way to recovery. Homes and businesses
had rebuilt, the population had doubled to 45,000 and manufacturing was approaching $50,000,000 annually.

Pittsburgh in the 1800s was the scene of many devastating events, including seven cholera epidemics from 1832 to 1855. Floods were a seasonal event, and some were massive in scale. Through it all, in the past as well as the present day, Pittsburghers have characteristically come together as friends and neighbors to survive these hard times.

* Text copied from Wikipedia: Great Fire of Pittsburgh and edited slightly. *

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