Pittsburgh Fire of 1845

Pittsburgh Fire of 1845
Paper instructions:

Project Description Model

This paper will investigate the Pittsburgh Fire of 1845, which destroyed one-third of the city. It is my belief that the best way to understand how a society functions is how its people plan for and deal with crises. I will seek to answer three major questions: 1) What was the state of fire protection services before the fire? 2) Who or what started the fire? 3) What hampered fire suppression efforts, letting it to burn out of control? I hope to use these questions to present an argument about hurdles to urban growth and development in the nineteenth century.

 

Bibliography

 

Secondary Sources

 

Cook, Donald E., Jr. “The Great Fire of Pittsburgh in 1845, Or How a Great American City Turned Disaster Into Victory,” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, vol. 41 (April 1968): pp. 127-53.

 

Hensler, Bruce. Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of Modern Fire Service. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2011.

 

Hoffer, Peter Charles. Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos That Reshaped America. New York: Public Affairs, 2006.

 

Pyne, Stephen. Fire: A Brief History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.*

 

Tebeau, Mark. Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800-1950. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

 

Primary Sources

 

Bakewell, Thomas, George W. Jackson et al. Address to the Public. Pittsburgh: Publisher Unknown, 1845.

 

Foster, J. Heron. The Great Fire. Pittsburgh: Publisher Unknown, 1845.

 

Pittsburgh Gazette and Advertiser, April-June 1845.

 

Pittsburgh Morning Chronicle, April-June 1845.

 

Revised Project Description Model (Due Week 8)
PART I: Refined Research Question(s)

 

1) What was the state of fire protection services before the Pittsburgh Fire of 1845?

2) Who or what started the fire?

3) What hampered fire suppression efforts, letting it to burn out of control?

 

PART II: Preliminary Answer(s) with Discussion of Source Materials

 

1) The best single source for understanding Pittsburgh’s state of fire protection before 1845 is James Waldo Fawcett’s article “Quest for Pittsburgh Fire Department History,” published in 1966 in theWestern Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. He traces Pittsburgh’s first fire company to the 1790s, which was manned by volunteers (Fawcett 41). He shows how as the city grew so did the number of volunteer fire companies. He estimates that 900 men belonged to these volunteer fire companies by the early 1830s. Fawcett explains that competition between the fire companies was intense, sometimes leading to fights (47-8). These volunteer fire companies were the city’s major defense against the Pittsburgh Fire of 1845.

 

Donald E. Cook, Jr. offers additional insight into what Pittsburgh was up against in trying to fight the fire. His article, “The Great Fire of Pittsburgh in 1845, or How a Great American City Turned Disaster into Victory,” published in 1968 in the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, explains that at the time of the fire the volunteer fire companies “never had an adequate number of fire buckets and never took care of their engines” and thus “were of little value” (Cook 127). He also explains that the waterworks was wholly inadequate to deal with the conflagration. To quote Cook, “In April 1845, there were only two water mains in the ‘downtown’ section, a six-inch main on Third Street and an eight-inch line on Liberty Avenue” (128).

 

2) There seems to be a general consensus that the Pittsburgh Fire of 1845 was started by an Irish washerwoman, whose fire’s embers ignited a nearby shed and quickly burned out of control. The most prominent historian to write about the fire, University of Georgia professor Peter Charles Hoffer, explains this consensus view, “The Great Fire of 1845 started at the back of one of the small rooming houses in the city’s South Side in the late morning of April 10. Locals later chalked it up to a careless Irish washerwoman leaving unintended her boiling pot of wash water. The embers blew into the open door or window of a shed used as a smokehouse, and ignited shavings there. A century later, the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania held a contest with a reward for information on culprit. In the March 31, 1945, issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, William Brophy won the award, claiming that his mother’s aunt, Betsy, said her second husband’s own mother, a Mrs. Brooks, was the cause. … Wilma Owens added to the story, courtesy of Mrs. Frank East’s mother, passed down to Sarah Taylor, and then to Owens. The culprit was an Irish washerwoman, one Ann Brooks, who lived on Wood Street but worked for Colonel Diehl on Ferry Street” (Hoffer 68).

 

However, not everyone accepts this interpretation, which is not surprising given the circumstantial nature of the evidence. Cook, for example, states, “It is not known who started the fire, how it started, or where it actually began” (Cook 130). He argues that based on the evidence at hand, here is the most we can with certainty about the fire’s start: “A woman, whose origin and name are lost to history, started a fire in an open lot; her purpose and status as to position in the community are also lost. But she allegedly was an Irish washerwoman, reported to be in the employ of Colonel Diehl, Mr. Bruce, or Colonel Woods” (130). Blame on the Irish could be a product of anti-Irish sentiment in nineteenth-century Pittsburgh and may be worthwhile exploring further.

 

3) Almost every source about the Pittsburgh Fire blames its rapid spread on low water tables and high winds. An unseasonably dry spring meant that reservoirs were low and firemen did not have adequate water power to put out the fire. High winds were also a contributing factor, spreading the fire rapidly. Even so-called fireproof buildings were not immune from the conflagration. In the primary source, “The Great Fire,” J. Herron Foster notes that the Third Presbyterian Church was only saved when the wooden cornices already aflame were hacked off the building with axes (Herron 2). Nothing seemed to be able to stop the fire as it continued to consume more and more of the city. Foster explains its end this way, “Having extended one mile from the place of beginning, destroying more than twenty squares, covering a space of fifty acres in our city and about six out of it, the fire stopped for want of fuel – as there were no more houses in the direction the flames had taken” (6). One-third of the city was left smoldering, over 12,200 structures destroyed, 10,000 people left homeless.

 

PART III: Updated Bibliography[1]

 

Cook, Donald E. “The Great Fire of Pittsburgh in 1845, or How a Great American City

Turned Disaster into Victory,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, 41 (April 1968): pp. 127-53.

 

Fawcett, James Waldo. “Quest for Pittsburgh Fire Department History,” Western

Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, 49 (January 1966): pp. 39-55.

 

Foster, J. Herron. The Great Fire. Pittsburgh: Publisher Unknown, 1845.

 

Hensler, Bruce. Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of

Modern Fire Service. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2011.

 

Hoffer, Peter Charles. Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos that Reshaped America. New

York: Public Affairs, 2006.

 

Pyne, Stephen. Fire: A Brief History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.

 

Tebeau, Mark. Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800-1950. Baltimore: Johns

Hopkins University Press, 2003.

 

[1] Although I don’t refer to Hensler, Pyne, or Tebeau in Part II, they contain useful background material that will make it into the final research paper.

 

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