The Great Fire of Pittsburgh

Great fire of pittsburgh

Pittsburgh on Fire

On April 10, 1845, the Great Fire of Pittsburgh took place, resulting in the destruction of about one-third of the city and causing damage estimated between $6 million and $12 million. Although its impact on the city’s culture was minimal, it did serve as a notable event for the rest of the 19th century and beyond.

Pittsburgh dates back to the mid-18th century when it was first established as a French military settlement at the merging point of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. In the following years, the city experienced a steady increase in population, largely consisting of native English, Scottish, and German residents, as well as a significant number of immigrants. Its population surpassed 20,000 by 1845, as reported by  and was further boosted by workers constructing the newly built Pennsylvania Canal.

Great fire of pittsburgh

The growth of the city was disorganized, resulting in a mix of well-to-do residences and businesses of the city’s leaders mixed in with closely-packed wooden buildings that housed the majority of the city’s immigrants. This unregulated expansion caused inadequate water pressure and an insufficient supply for its ten volunteer fire companies, which were more like social organizations rather than effective public services. The previous year, a new reservoir was completed, but the old one was shut down. However, the water system and fire equipment were inadequate. The city only had two water mains and the fire companies did not have enough hose to reach the center of the city from the rivers, as most of the existing hose had been deemed unusable.

The city was home to a thriving iron manufacturing industry, which accounted for a quarter of its overall industrial production. The coal dust and soot from the furnaces used in Pittsburgh’s iron and glass industries were so prevalent that an observer in 1823 described the walls as coated and the workers in the streets as black as the devil himself. The British author Charles Dickens also noted in 1842 that the city was covered in a thick layer of smoke. Other industries, such as flour mills and cotton factories, also contributed to the dusty air, creating a highly flammable environment in the city. Additionally, the lack of rain for six weeks and strong westerly winds during the day made the situation even more dangerous as the city’s reservoir was at a dangerously low level. These factors set the stage for the devastating fire that would hit Pittsburgh in 1845.

The Great Pittsburgh Fire Begins

The morning of April 10, 1845, brought a windy and warm day. During a short break in the gusts just before noon, Ann Brooks, an employee of Colonel William Diehl who worked on Ferry Street, left a newly stoked fire unattended. The fire was started to heat wash water. A spark from this fire accidentally ignited a nearby ice shed or barn. The fire department responded, but their hoses only produced a weak and muddy stream of water. The flames quickly spread to multiple buildings owned by Colonel Diehl, including his home and the Globe Cotton Factory. The initial alarm was raised by the bells of the Third Presbyterian Church, but the church was saved by dropping its burning wooden cornice onto the street. Thankfully, its stone walls acted as a barrier to prevent the fire from spreading further north and west. However, when the wind changed direction to the southeast, the fire gained more strength. A witness described the scene as “terrific” with the roar of the flames and the appalling glare as they jumped through the thick black clouds of smoke, engulfing the land and sky.

At 2:00 pm, as the fire sent embers flying into the air, new fires were sparked where they landed. This caused many citizens who were initially fighting the flames to instead flee in order to save their own belongings. The fire continued to advance, block by block, through the diverse structures of Pittsburgh, including both poor and wealthy residences and businesses. The “loftiest buildings” were no match for the raging flames. The intense heat of the fire caused wood to burn, metal and glass to melt, and stone and brick to collapse. Even the supposedly fireproof Bank of Pittsburgh fell victim to the fire, as the heat shattered its windows and melted its zinc roof. The molten metal then ignited the wooden interior, leaving only the contents of the vault unscathed. Similarly, the luxurious Monongahela House, known as the “finest Hotel in the west,” was completely destroyed when its cupola caught fire and collapsed. The offices of the mayor and several churches were also lost to the fire. As it spread towards Second Street and Market Street, the region where the city’s physicians were located, the destruction continued.

Despite the intense flames, the movement was slow enough for the residents to evacuate themselves and their belongings in time. Some of them sought refuge in the then undeveloped highlands to the east, also known as the modern Hill District, where a newly built courthouse stood. This area remained unaffected by the fire. Others fled south towards the Monongahela River, and a few were able to cross the Monongahela Bridge, which was located at the site of the present-day Smithfield Street Bridge. This bridge was the first of many that would span Pittsburgh’s rivers. However, the bridge soon became overcrowded, and it caught fire, burning down completely in just 15 minutes, leaving only its supporting pillars behind. Those who relied on riverboats to escape with their belongings were not as fortunate as the boats that did not flee were also consumed by the fire. This left the refugees with no choice but to pile their belongings on the riverbank. Unfortunately, most of their belongings were either burned, stolen, or looted, while the fleeing population was left with only what they could carry. The docks and warehouses on the waterfront were also destroyed, and any attempts to save the materials by bringing them to the riverbank only delayed their destruction. The fire continued along the river into Pipetown, a neighborhood of workers’ housing and factories, causing widespread devastation once again. The fire eventually stopped when the winds died down at around 6:00 AM, and by 7:00 AM, it had fully subsided within the city, having burned its way to the river and cooler hills. However, the factories in Pipetown continued to burn until around 9:00 AM. Throughout the night, there were occasional flare-ups and the sounds of buildings collapsing could be heard repeatedly.

Fighting The Great Pittsburgh Fire

The growing fire departments in the city found themselves overwhelmed as they struggled to combat a fire that broke out in a riverside location. Due to inadequate equipment and infrastructure, the firefighters were unable to bring sufficient water to the site of the blaze. These volunteer companies, which operated more like social clubs than professional firefighting organizations, suffered major losses including most of their hoses and two of their engines during the incident.

Individual volunteers provided assistance as well. While the ships on the Monongahela river left the city, those on the north side of the Allegheny river were actively involved in transporting refugees across the river and bringing men from Allegheny City to aid in extinguishing the fire and evacuating the residents. One of the individuals who crossed the river to offer aid was a young man named Stephen Foster, who would later be recognized as the ‘father of American music’.

Additional assistance was provided by the “Neptune Volunteer Fire Brigade,” which was located on Seventh Avenue in Pittsburgh. The group was headed by John C. Wallacker, who unfortunately developed asthma as a result of the fire and ultimately passed away.

Members of the congregation hurried to rescue the Third Presbyterian Church. 13-year-old John R. Banks climbed to the top of the Western University of Pennsylvania (predecessor of the University of Pittsburgh) in an effort to prevent it from catching fire from the falling embers. However, according to a witness, the university’s cupola burned briefly before collapsing like paper. The residence of the university president was also destroyed. Some individuals took advantage of the evacuation to loot abandoned houses and items left on the streets. One hotel within the burned area was saved by using gunpowder to demolish adjacent buildings, creating a barrier that the fire could not cross.

The Aftermath

Great fire of pittsburgh

On the morning of April 11, a large portion of the city was destroyed by fire, leaving behind only a few chimneys and walls among the remains. Some buildings were strangely spared amidst the devastation. It was reported that 60 acres, representing the “best half of the city,” had been burned and only two or three homes in the Second Ward remained unscathed. Artist William Coventry Wall quickly captured this scene in a series of paintings, which were then reproduced as lithographs and widely distributed. Other artists, including Nathaniel Currier and James Baillie, also created prints based on newspaper reports, as the demand for “disaster prints” grew. The fire destroyed approximately 1200 buildings and displaced around 12,000 individuals, or 2000 families. Belongings were piled on the hills surrounding the city. Surprisingly, there were only two fatalities – lawyer Samuel Kingston, who was trying to save a piano and got lost in the smoke and heat, and Mrs. Maglone, whose body was found weeks later. The cost of the disaster is estimated to be between $5 and $25 million, with one author equating it to $267 million in 2006 dollars. Unfortunately, almost none of this money was able to be recovered, as most of Pittsburgh’s insurers went bankrupt.

After the great fire of Pittsburgh, local religious leaders attributed the disaster to God’s punishment for the sins of the industrial city. The mayor of neighboring Allegheny City also called for a period of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. In an effort to seek relief, the mayor and attorney Wilson McCandless personally traveled to the state capital of Harrisburg, with the support of Governor Francis R. Shunk. As a result, the Legislature granted the city $50,000 and refunded taxes for destroyed structures, as well as providing a three-year tax break for the entire city. However, this had an unexpected consequence as it caused public schools to remain closed due to lack of funding. The Legislature also attempted to renege on some of the relief money they had granted. Donations were received from various sources, including private and public contributions totaling almost $200,000 from places as far away as Louisiana and even Europe. Other cities and towns in the United States, such as Wheeling and Meadville, Pennsylvania, also donated commodities such as flour, bacon, potatoes, and sauerkraut. The funds were then distributed on a sliding scale to those who made claims, with the last disbursement occurring the following July.

In the initial reports to newspapers in other cities and in early descriptions, the city’s immediate reaction was one of hopelessness.

On the infamous tenth of April, our citizens were faced with a catastrophic disaster that destroyed the city and everything they had worked for. It is difficult to convey the true devastation of the event, as even those who witnessed it were unable to fully comprehend the magnitude of the destruction. The suddenness of the disaster left even the most composed individuals in a state of shock and disbelief. Prior to that morning, countless citizens were content in their comfortable homes and busy workplaces, but in a matter of hours, their hopes and livelihoods were shattered.

However, the positive atmosphere was short-lived as the city began to rebuild itself soon after. This sudden lack of structures led to a sharp increase in property values and a rapid construction boom that replaced many of the buildings that were destroyed. Within just two months, around 400-500 new buildings had already been erected in the burned area, despite the difficulty of navigating through the piles of debris. While these new structures were made with better materials and improved architecture compared to their predecessors, the issues caused by the fire still remained. In 1848, industrialist Andrew Carnegie even commented on the danger of using wooden buildings in the fire-prone city, as well as the pollution in the air caused by the smoke and soot. However, the demand for replacement homes and household items also boosted the local industries, leading to a belief among Pittsburgh’s industrialists that the fire had actually spurred the city’s growth. This belief was later commemorated a century later with a celebration of the fire’s anniversary.

Commemorating The Great Pittsburgh Fire

Great fire of pittsburgh

A stone historical marker can be found on the building at 411 Smithfield Street, situated between Fourth Avenue and Forbes Avenue. It commemorates the buildings that served as the boundary for the burnt district of April 10th, 1845.