Ruins of the Great St. Louis Fire


Thomas Easterly, a well-known daguerreotypist, captured this photograph depicting the damage of the St. Louis Fire of May 17, 1849. This disaster incinerated fifteen blocks of the business district. Losses were estimated at six million dollars, which included: four hundred and thirty buildings, twenty-three steamboats and other boats, and a large amount of freight and merchandise. The blaze started when the Steamboat White Cloud caught fire, eventually catching nearby vessels on fire when the ship broke free and floated downstream. The fire also spread to the buildings along the levee and into the city’s business district. It was eventually brought under control by the volunteer firemen who set controlled explosions in a few buildings to create a fire break. The fire caused an estimated $6 million of property damage, and three people lost their lives, including fireman Captain Thomas B. Targee. Although the fire destroyed many of the city’s original structures, the tragedy allowed for the construction of modern multi-storied buildings along the riverfront as well as a new city sewer system.

Easterly’s image appears backwards because the camera did not have a reversing prism (mirror); however, once the image is flipped horizontally, we see Easterly intended a southeast view of the city. To capture the photograph, Easterly stood several blocks inland from the Mississippi River near the northwest corner of the ruins. He then pointed his lens diagonally across the ruins to celebrate the victory that the fire stopped at the foot of the Presbyterian Church (corner of Walnut and Fifth Street).

Object Details

Categories: Cities & Towns

Date: 1849

Subject: Disasters

Contributing Institution: Missouri Historical Society

Accession Number: N17039

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Rights: The text and images contained in this collection are intended for research and educational use only. Duplication of any of these images for commercial use without express written consent is expressly prohibited. Contact the Missouri Historical Society's Permissions Office at 314-746-4511 to obtain written consent.

Region: St. Louis Metro

Type: Photograph

Latitude: 38.626317

Longitude: -90.183086