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What was the worst disaster ever to have hit Pittsburgh?

Question submitted by: Joseph Forbes, South Side

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I've got a friend who insists it's short-sleeved Oxford shirts for men. Clearly, some of us are still living with the fallout of that one. The rest of you can insert the name of your least favorite local politician or sports figure here. That will free me to take the high road, as we always try to do here at City Paper.

 

 

There are a few contenders for worst disaster in the city's history, any one of which would have your average local TV news director drooling for a camera and a leggy correspondent to put in front of it. Floods have plagued Pittsburgh repeatedly, and there have been numerous disease outbreaks.

 

But in terms of a good-old-fashioned disaster, you'd be hard-pressed to top the Great Fire of 1845.

 

The fire began modestly enough that April 10. It was widely said that it started when a washerwoman -- always identified as Irish, but never by name -- left a fire to heat up the water unattended. According to one contemporary account, "At the very first ... there did not seem to be very much danger. For half an hour after the fire broke out, the wind, which had been blowing all morning, slept in a propitious lull." But there had been no rain for the previous two weeks, "and the first efforts of the fire engines resulted only in sucking mud." Then the wind kicked in.

 

In those days, most of Pittsburgh's buildings were wood. As a result, reported the local newspaper The Mystery, the fire spread "as though impelled by the hand of the Destroying Angel." The paper's correspondent, who may have been paid by the metaphor -- or the exclamation point: He described the fire moving "with the flight of a fiery flying serpent, consuming every house with the angry fury of a Vulcan. ...  Never did any event appear more like Judgment Day. People running, some screaming, others hallowing, warning the people to fly for their lives, carts, drays, ... horses, and all and every kind of vehicle, crowded the streets to an excess which made it difficult for each to escape, and threatened destruction to all! May we never again witness such a scene, until the last conflagration of this terrestrial globe!"

 

The fire spread over 56 acres of Downtown land, destroying nearly 1,000 buildings. Among them were the Firemen's Insurance Office and the Fire and Navigation Office. Also destroyed were a handful of churches, a newspaper office, the famed Monongahela House tavern, and a covered wooden bridge joining Pittsburgh to the South Side.

 

The fire, which had started shortly after noon, was more or less burned out by 7 p.m., leaving just a few hours for news cameras to set up for the 11 o'clock broadcast. By comparison, a fire 10 years earlier in New York City required four days to consume a space of 50 acres.

 

Oddly, given the fire's rapid spread, there were only two fatalities, including that of one Samuel Kingston "last seen going into his residence ... to remove a piano."

 

Still, estimates of the damage ranged as high as $9 million, and some 2,000 families were left homeless. Among them were some of the city's wealthiest, "very few having even a change of linen," as historian Sarah Killikelly put it. To make themselves feel better, the wealthy later engaged on a vicious campaign of union-busting.

 

In fact, the whole city bounced back fairly quickly. It reorganized its fire department (better late than never, I guess), and began rebuilding. As Killikelly recounted, the residents' "misfortunes were borne with fortitude and a spirit which enabled them to recover. The absence of despair and sullenness and a disposition of the afflicted to aid one another extended to all classes."

 

Moreover, according to Leland Baldwin's Pittsburgh: The Story of a City, one David Alter discovered a fringe benefit of the blaze in the form of a shard of flint glass from a still-smoldering glasshouse. Alter "ground a prism from" the fragment, Baldwin writes, "and it was this prism that led to his discovery of spectrum analysis in 1853."

 

In the long run, the fire may have helped the city. A whole swath of Downtown was able to build anew, creating the city we know today. And without the need to go through costly eminent domain proceedings.

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