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The Burnt District

Signals, October 2005

Pittsburgh from the South Side, two days after the Great Fire, from a painting in the Carnegie Museum by William Coventry Wall (1810-1877)

Lecture by Gary Link - Tuesday, October 25th, 2005

Our lecture this month is by a gentleman who has immersed himself in the history of Pittsburgh at the time of the Great Fire of 1845 to enliven an historical novel featuring a city constable named John Parker. Author Gary Link holds a Masters in History from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is currently Corporate Records Manager for Astorino, a Pittsburgh architectural firm. His work, The Burnt District (Publish America, Inc., 2003), recreates the geographical, social, commercial and governmental features of the growing city so catastrophically impacted by the fire that destroyed one third of it and left 12,000 people homeless. Mr. Link has spoken to groups throughout the area. He plans two sequels to The Burnt District, one set in the Mexican War period (The Spectrum) and the other at the time of the coming of the railroad in the 1850s (The Throughway).


The Great Fire

by Beth Riegel Quaker Valley Senior High School Winner of First Prize in Edgar W. Woods Memorial Fund Contest

The morning of April 10, 1845, dawned clear and bright. There had been no rain for the previous two weeks. Even this day promised nothing except a high, dry wind from the west. On the corner of Ferry Street and Second Avenue an Irish washerwoman lit a fire to boil some water. Carelessly, she left it as she turned to search for more kettles. Meanwhile, a sudden wind sprang up, carrying the fire’s embers to a nearby wood shed. Before the water had started to boil, the shed and an icehouse, belonging to Col. William Diehl, were aflame. The houses close by were like timber for the burning, since the high winds had carried off their moisture. In a few minutes the fire leaped to the frame houses on Second Avenue. Shortly after noon a man struck the bell in the belfry of the Third Presbyterian Church a block away. Alerted by the alarm, the people first regarded the fire merely as an exciting interlude. They were assured that there was little danger of the fire’s spreading. Soon the firemen of the Eagle Fire Engine Co. arrived on the scene. Since the wind was in a lull, many believed that the fire could easily have been extinguished. These optimistic beliefs were quickly disproved. At this time, the water level in the city’s reservoir was very low because of the dry weather. As a result, the efforts of the engines’ pumping yielded only a thin stream of mud. Then the men applied their energy to the bucket service. Though they worked diligently, the water supply was shortly exhausted. About half an hour later the lateral winds suddenly increased. Soon the fire was being carried to the northeast faster than the firemen could have put it out even with an abundance of water. All efforts made to subdue it were ineffectual. With its good start, the fire was shortly beyond their control. The gusty winds soon whipped it into a roaring demon and started it on its destructive course. Swiftly the fire jumped to the opposite square, fanning out rapidly in all directions. It attacked and devoured the Globe Cotton Factory of James Woods. Then it moved on, destroying a neighboring brick building and threatening the Third Presbyterian Church. By the strong-willed exertions of the people, the church was saved. It was intact except for part of the wooden cornice, which was cut away by the Eagle Fire Co. In saving the church, the people prevented twelve squares to the northeast from being consumed. As the fire licked its way northward and eastward to Market Street, it also spread to Water Street and the banks of the Monongahela. Cinders fell on the wharves of the Monongahela and on the steamboats, which hastily pulled out to the river. Household goods and merchandise carried to the docks for safety were soon caught in the onslaught of flames. But even the river did not stop the fire’s advance. At Smithfield Street, the fire consumed the wooden Smithfield Street covered bridge.... In addition, Pittsburgh’s industry also suffered from the fire’s heavy blows. On Water Street, site of the many iron and glassware houses, the fire molded great masses of melted iron into all possible shapes, reduced kegs of nails to useless heaps, and mixed lumps of glass with nails and other rubbish. Yet, miraculously, on the corner of Ross and Fourth, the enraged fire left a combustible warehouse standing untouched. Furiously the fire moved eastward toward Grant’s Hill and the canal separating Pittsburgh from its nearby suburb of Kensington or Pipetown. The last building destroyed on the Pittsburgh side of the canal was the new steel works of Jones and Quigg. Then the fire dipped down from the steep bank into the canal. It rose and burned many of the frame buildings which confronted it on the opposite side. As the fire swept between Grant’s Hill and the Monongahela through Kensington, every house and building was destroyed without exception. Finally, when nothing remained to be consumed, the fire died on the slopes of Pittsburgh’s surrounding hills.... Thousands were forced to seek shelter in the courthouse, public buildings, warehouses and with personal friends. Even those who managed to remove their furniture to the streets found that it had been looted or stolen by thieves. There were no tents nor provisions for the homeless. About 982 buildings were destroyed, including large business houses and the most valuable factories in the city. Over $250,000 was sent to Pittsburgh as relief aid from all over the country. After Mr. Cornelius Darragh and Mr. Wilson McCandless presented the case before the Pennsylvania Legislature, Gov. Shunk appropriated $50,000 for relief and exempted Pittsburgh from taxes during the years of 1846-1848. Since Pittsburgh’s insurance companies had not expanded their investments to include industries other than those in the city, they went bankrupt. Merchants soon circulated reports throughout the country that Pittsburgh’s industry was not crippled and that they were still prepared for business and prompt fulfillment of orders. Through the press, eastern banking men were encouraged to invest their capital to rebuild the city. Everyone replenished his stocks quickly and resumed business as usual.... This disaster contributed much to the emergence of Pittsburgh as a metropolis. Previously, Grant’s Hill had marked the extent of the city, with business confined to the triangle. With the help of new capital and the advantages of new buildings, business was attracted to this busy center and spread its boundaries. From the ashes of defeat and despair rose a flourishing, young city full of confidence and hope for its future—Pittsburgh.

N. Currier lithograph

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