5 Tragic Turns in St. Louis History—Part 1

17, September 2016

Like any community, the St. Louis region has had its share of heartache over the years. Here's a look at some of the tragic moments in St. Louis history from the frontier days through the Civil War period.

1. 1811 and 1812 New Madrid Earthquakes

Wood engraving of the Great Earthquake at New MadridWood engraving recounting the New Madrid earthquakes, created in 1854. Missouri Historical Society collections.

Known as some of the most powerful earthquakes to hit the United States in recorded history, the New Madrid quakes—named for the then-largest town between St. Louis and Natchez, Mississippi—shook a million square miles of the country. The first of the three earthquakes struck northeast Arkansas in the early hours of December 16, 1811, waking people as far as New York and blasting sand and water into the air. Although the earthquake was fearsome, the damage to Missouri was moderate due to the area’s sparse population.

But Mother Nature wasn't done yet: A second quake struck on January 23, 1812, this time in New Madrid; the third quake struck on February 7, 1812, along the Reelfoot fault in Missouri and Tennessee. As a result of the quakes—which all had magnitudes of 7.3 or higher—miles of cracks lined the ground, land areas sank and rose, islands disappeared, the Mississippi River supposedly ran backward for hours, and the town of New Madrid laid in ruins.

2. 1849 Fire

Handcolored lithograph of the Great Fire of 1849Only three people perished in this fire that ravaged 15 city blocks. Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, 1849. Missouri Historical Society collections.

On the evening of May 17, 1849, bells rang loudly as a fire consumed The White Cloud, a New Orleans steamboat moored at the north end of St. Louis's landing. Somehow the boat broke free of its moorings, drifted down the Mississippi, and ignited more than 20 boats and barges. Strong winds and flammable freight on the levee helped spread the fire to nearby wooden homes and businesses. Civilians and volunteer firemen hoping to extinguish the flames used buckets and hoses to no avail.

To stop the fire from spreading further, firemen eventually blew up nine buildings with gunpowder to create a fire block. Fire Captain Thomas Targee was killed in one of the explosions, becoming one of three people who lost their lives that night. The fire raged for 11 hours, destroying nearly everything in sight for 15 blocks in the area where the Gateway Arch now resides. Although the river city lost more than 400 buildings that May night, it was able to rebuild with fire-resistant materials such as stone and brick.

3. 1849 Cholera Epidemic

Black-and-white daguerreotype of Chouteau's PondChouteau's Pond contributed to the cholera epidemic. Daguerreotype by Thomas Easterly, 1850. Missouri Historical Society collections.

In the late 1840s, St. Louis was growing—perhaps too quickly for its own good. By the summer of 1849, the city's population had swelled to 75,000, with boatloads of immigrants arriving and no sewer system in place to accommodate them. Sewage was diverted into underground caverns that soon backed up, and human waste and factory runoff made its way to Chouteau’s Pond, turning it into an open sewer. Cholera spread quickly as human waste seeped into wells and contaminated drinking water.

Without understanding the cause of the bacterial infection, doctors improvised treatments such as withholding fruits and vegetables, bloodletting, and induced vomiting—all of which were ineffective. St. Louis City Hospital started running out of beds for cholera-ridden patients, and gravediggers struggled to keep up with as many as 145 deaths each day. The epidemic waned by August 1, but not before killing more than 4,500 people—nearly 7 percent of the city's total population.

4. 1855 Gasconade River Bridge Disaster

Black-and-white daguerreotype of Pacific Railroad freight locomotive O'SullivanThis Pacific Railroad locomotive was named O'Sullivan, in honor of Chief Engineer Thomas O'Sullivan who died in the Gasconade River Bridge disaster. Daguerreotype by Thomas Easterly, 1855. Missouri Historical Society collections.

To celebrate the partial completion of the Pacific Railroad line intended to connect St. Louis to California and the Pacific Ocean, 600 passengers—including the mayor, the city council, and founding family member Henry Chouteau—loaded into 14 train cars and set off toward Jefferson City on November 1, 1855. As the train neared the Gasconade River, the celebration turned to catastrophe. The bridge across the river hadn't been finished in time for the line's inaugural trip and was instead bolstered with temporary trestle. As the train began to cross it in the heavy rain, the bridge collapsed under the train's weight, sending all but one car plummeting to the river and its bank. Those who survived attempted to make their way to safety, dragging with them the lifeless bodies of their companions. The disaster took the lives of more than 30 people, including Henry Chouteau, and left hundreds injured.

The misfortune continued for the survivors as the storm interfered with communication to St. Louis, delaying news of the accident until evening. The passengers were taken to Hermann, where a hospital train eventually arrived to transport them back to St. Louis. The train began making its way toward St. Louis but was stopped when it neared Boeuf Creek—once again, the raging storm had created unsafe bridge conditions. As a precaution, a second train came to the east side of the bridge, and those who could walked across the bridge to board it. The plan was to push the train cars containing the seriously injured and deceased passengers across the bridge, but as soon as the first car neared the creek, the bridge failed and was swept away. It wasn’t until November 3 that all the passengers were returned to St. Louis.

5. 1861 Camp Jackson Affair

Lithograph of Camp JacksonCamp Jackson lithograph by Charles Robyn & Co., 1861–1865. Missouri Historical Society collections.

During the Civil War, Missouri was a border state with both Union and Confederate interests. Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson refused President Abraham Lincoln’s request that Missouri send troops to fight the South. Governor Jackson wanted Missouri to pull out of the Union and went so far as to plan an attack on the St. Louis Arsenal. When Union captain Nathaniel Lyon heard of the governor’s plan, he secretly shipped the arsenal’s guns to Illinois. Then, on May 10, 1861, Lyon took federal troops to Camp Jackson, which was full of secessionists and stolen guns. Because his units outnumbered theirs, Lyon easily took the militiamen prisoner and began marching them toward the arsenal. Onlooking civilians were upset by the procession, and someone fired a shot. Thus began a flood of gunfire that killed more than 30 soldiers and civilians, among them women and children.

—Ashley Preuss, Communications Intern

Membership appeal