PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The city of Pittsburgh has had its fair share of tragedies and difficult times, always emerging stronger and more vibrant than before. The Great Fire of Pittsburgh in 1845 was no exception, destroying about a third of the city, but also binding its residents together for the monumental rebuilding that changed the face of the city and its surrounding neighborhoods.
By 1845, Pittsburgh’s haphazard growth and tightly packed wooden buildings were typical of early American cities. The booming population outstripped city services (there were only two water mains in all of downtown) and left the dense blocks of mixed housing and businesses ill-prepared for the coming disaster. The volunteer fire companies, such as they were, performed mostly as social clubs and were likewise not ready to defend the city.
The city’s day of reckoning came on an otherwise quiet Thursday. Like many great city fires, it started as a small mistake, made much worse by a six-week drought that left the buildings dry like tinder and reservoirs dangerously empty.
Around noon, eyewitnesses said Ann Brooks prepared to do laundry for Col. William Diehl, who lived on Ferry Street (approximately where the corner of Stanwix Street and Second Avenue is today). The dry air and high winds made for a perfect laundry day. She reportedly made a small fire to heat water and left it untended in the strong winds, which sent a spark to the roof of the nearby ice shed.
By 2 p.m., embers were blowing throughout the city as blazes joined blazes into a massive conflagration that consumed everything from near Market Square to the present-day Liberty Bridge.
Fire companies responded, but the water pressure was insufficient to douse the blaze. As the reservoirs emptied of what water they had, fire companies found their leather hoses belching mud at the growing inferno.
Fortunately, the flames spread slow enough that most people were able to outrun them, fleeing up to the Hill District or across the only bridge to the South Side. Others fled to nearby Allegheny City to the north, to watch from across the Allegheny River.
Workers desperately tried to move goods from warehouses to the perceived safety of the Monongahela wharf, but the wind-born embers found them and soon everything was abandoned ahead of the advancing flames. Docked steamboats were chased away and people scrambled across the toll bridge at Smithfield Street to safety.
Another account of the flames’ fast advance on the waterfront attributes some of it to alcohol. The story goes that workmen fled a warehouse and left a keg of liquor dangling on a rope and pulley. The rope burned and dropped the keg, which burst into flames, causing even more kegs to explode and the sending burning liquor running down the street gutters and to the wharf, igniting everything in between.
The western part of downtown was saved when firefighters chopped off the top of the Third Presbyterian Church, where the fire alarm bell was still ringing from its 163-foot steeple. After the ornate wood cornice was beset by embers, firefighters took axes to it and dropped it into the fiery street below.
Congregation members joined the firefighters and managed to save the rest of the building by covering the roof with wet cloths. The high stone walls of the sanctuary preserved the buildings beyond it.
The Bank of Pittsburgh, touted as the only fireproof building in the city, lost that distinction when its zinc roof melted in the wind-driven inferno, which then burned out the opulent wood interior. The bank’s cashier saw the fire coming and secured the books and valuables in the vault, which did survive, though gold and silver were found fused into lumps by the heat.
The northeastern portion of downtown was saved only by demolishing the brick buildings at Fourth and Ross Street by blowing them up with gunpowder. Sharp-eyed visitors downtown can still find a memorial plaque on the wall of 411 Smithfield St., which marks that row of buildings as the “bordering line of the Burnt District.”
Many of Pittsburgh’s historic and significant structures were reduced to ash during the five-hour calamity, including the city’s premier hotel, the Monongahela House, which was rebuilt.
The campus of the Western University of Pennsylvania was decimated, along with its records, which went back to 1787.
The city also lost most of its records and the mayor’s office when the building known as Philo Hall was consumed.
By nightfall, the blaze reached the Monongahela River and died out, leaving a 60-acre expanse of smoldering ruins where what had been previously described as the wealthiest and best business section of the city.
Two people were killed in the fire. One of them, a lawyer named Samuel Kingston, was believed to have returned to his house to save a valuable piano. In the gale of smoke, ash and flames he entered the wrong house and was found dead there.
Nearly 1,000 buildings were completely destroyed, 1,200 more were damaged and 12,000 people were displaced. Damage was estimated to be between $5 to $25 million ($260 million today).
The climate in the aftermath was not one of despair, but of quiet and calm determination. Pittsburghers proudly discouraged talk of the city being “devastated” and instead turned to the hopeful task of rebuilding.
The Pennsylvania Legislature joined widespread relief efforts by returning all taxes paid on destroyed properties, along with a three-year tax holiday for the entire city and $50,000 in additional relief funds.
The restoration of the downtown triangle was swift, with property values rising as fast as the buildings were replaced. The local economy also surged to fulfill the need for building supplies, labor and household goods.
Business in Pittsburgh could not be stopped, with many opening up storefronts and pitching tents in the ashes where their shops had previously stood.
Within three months, the city was largely intact again. The resilience of Pittsburgh allowed it to experience even more rapid growth and greater prosperity than before the fire.
The rebuilding transformed other parts of Pittsburgh too, as more businesses moved into downtown (newly known as the Burnt District), families relocated farther out to growing neighborhoods like East Liberty and Allegheny City.
Many of the prominent families whose homes were destroyed in the fire found themselves following William Eichbaum’s lead. Eichbaum, whose name translated from German means oak tree, bought a 10-acre farm east of the city. There he built a mansion in the midst of a grove of oaks where Montifiore Hospital now stands. He named his new residence Oakland.
For years after the fire, the old City Hall bell was rung to commemorate the event. The bell would chime out the year in front of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania building in Oakland. The bell is now located in the Sen. John Heinz History Center’s Great Hall and last rang in 1995.
J. Heron Foster, a journalist who eventually founded three newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Dispatch, wrote a full account of the fire. It offers detailed individual eyewitness accounts, lists of losses and relief contributions. It can be found online here: https://archive.org/details/fullaccountofgre00fost/page/n11/mode/2up.
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