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Disastrous Conflagration at the Levee.


October 1862

From The Missouri Democrat, Tuesday, October 28, 1862.


Five Steamboats Burned—Two of them Loaded and their Contents Destroyed.


LOSS ABOUT $150,000.

One of the direst of disasters that has visited our river marine for many years occurred yesterday.  At about twelve o’clock fire accidentally broke out in the hold of the steamer H. D. Bacon, unloading hemp near the foot of Locust street.  The hemp is believed to have been ignited through the careless use of a candle in the hold.

The flames of course spread with intense rapidity, driving every one from the vessel, and creating alarm and commotion among the adjacent steamers north and south.  Before they could be removed the fire had caught the T. L. McGill on the south and the A. McDowell on the north.  The latter was backed out and dropped down past the burning steamers, and with her stern against the Estella and bow against the Wm. H. Russell, communicating the flames to each of these boats.

The result was a conflagration of the most terrific description, and which baffled the energies of the firemen to stay its progress.  Each of the vessels named was destroyed, together with their contents.  Thousands of citizens crowded to the Levee, despite a panic that had been created by the rumor that several hundred kegs of powder were on the H. D. Bacon.

The flames caught and also consumed about six hundred bales of hemp and a hundred bales of cotton, besides a large quantity of miscellaneous freight piled on the levee.  About a hundred bales of cotton were rescued by being rolled up toward Main street.  The hulls of several of the boats will probably be saved.

The steam fire engines had, except in one instance, to take their position on Main street, there being but a single available fire plug on the levee.  Much trouble and delay was caused by the frequent bursting of old hose, which, apparently, was used in preference to the new and strong hose recently purchased by the Fire Department.

Following is a list of the proprietors of each boat, and its value as estimated by the Board of Underwriters:

The T. L. McGill, worth $16,000, and owned by Capt. Oby Robirds and Capt. Newman Robirds.  The boat was empty and laid up.

The H. D. Bacon, worth $24,000, and owned by Mrs. Caroline Pegrum, Capt. Jno. McCloy and Jno. H. Baldwin.  The steamer arrived Sunday, and was unloading hemp.

The Wm. H. Russell, valued at $8,000 belonged to Mr. Rolla Porter and Capt. Burton.  She was partly loaded with a miscellaneous cargo of groceries, dry goods, &c., and would have been the first boat to leave for the Missouri river.

The A. McDowell, estimated at $29,000, and owned by Capt. D. N. Greenleaf, D. S. Carter and Capt. Wilcox.  The McDowell was laid up, had been for weeks past, and was empty.

The Estella, a new boat, worth at least $28,000, and owned by Messrs. Wm. B. and George M. Hazlett, of Pittsburg, Pa., and Captain John P. Keisar.  The vessel was empty, and was to have loaded this week for the Missouri river.  The above values are those determined by the Board of Underwriters for insurance purposes.  We learn with certainty that D. S. Carter has insurance for his portion of the McDowell.  The other vessels were insured, with the exception of the McGill.

At the moment of the alarm being given, the Wiggins ferryboat Illinois No. 2, Capt. George Braden in command, was at her landing on the opposite side of the river.  From the pilot of the ferryboat, Mr. Alex Linder, we learn some particulars.  At 12 o’clock or near that hour, he was walking down the bank on the opposite shore, when he saw flame and smoke issue from the lower deck of the H. D. Bacon, which lay at the foot of Olive street.  He hastened on board the ferryboat, which had steam up, and came instantly over to the scene of threatened destruction.

She found the tow-boat Francis Fisher attempting to rescue the A. McDowell, but in this the Fisher failed by the breaking of her line.  Thus the Illinois No. 2 was delayed in making herself useful.  The McDowell and Bacon were quickly enveloped in flame, and all hope was past of saving their upper works.

The Illinois No. 2, seeing the splendid and valuable Missouri river steamer Robert Campbell, made fast to her, and quickly transferred her to a place of safety.

She returned then to the McDowell, but failed to move her, as her commander considered it needless to occupy valuable time in moving her.  She then ran close to the bank and the stern of the McGill, and played upon every available part of that boat, greatly aiding in saving the hull and the machinery of the McGill.

The coal tow boat Francis Fisher, Capt. Brunner, was actively engaged during the conflagration in rendering valuable service.  In addition to other work, she rescued the fine Northern line packet Sucker State, as that steamer was about to take fire.

The Arago, St. Louis and Columbus packet, fortunately had her officers and crew aboard, and quickly raising steam, she made fast to the Southwester, and both speedily left the scene of danger.  The Arago was one of the closest boats to those which were burned.

The coal tow-boat Diurnal speedily made her entrance in the exciting scene.  Besides other matters performed by her, she towed away the Mill Boy, which had on board a cargo for Missouri river, and the empty and laid-up steamer Desmoines.

The Alton packet, B. M. Runyan, lashed herself to the Keokuk packet Jeanie Deans, and Memphis packet Platte Valley, and backed them into mid stream.

The Planet lay at the wharf-boat, foot of Market street, with freight on board for the South.  She dropped out and down a short distance, and her officers said there was no danger to be apprehended in her immediate neighborhood.

When two o’clock had nearly arrived the scene had become less exciting.

The McGill between the mouths of Olive and Pine streets, was still smoking and hissing, steam rising from her blackened upper works, caused by the stream of water thrown in by the Illinois No. 2.  Outside of her lay the still burning hull of the Bacon, and outside of the latter lay the hull of the McDowell, with flames and smoke still rising from a confused mass of rubbish and machinery, not far above the water.

Above these against the wharf, lay the smoking and burning wreck of the W. H. Russell, the smokepipes of which fell riverward with a violent crash, before 1 o’clock.

The scene was witnessed from the pilot house of the ferry boat, was very grand, notwithstanding it was one of destruction.

On the river floated and darted hither and thither hundreds of skiffs, propelled by boys and men, looking for prizes among the immense quantity of blackened masses which floated past from the doomed steamers.

Numbers of steamers were slowly turning their wheels in midstream, as if uncertain whether to return to the wharf or not, and others were being hurriedly towed over to the East St. Louis shore.

There arose over the wharf a pall of stifling smoke from the burning cotton and smouldering merchandise which had strewn that thoroughfare so plentifully when the fire began.

The harrowing sight was observed by a number of horrified spectators, of a number of cattle and hogs flying from the H. D. Bacon, partially roasted—their skin burned and peeling off.

The occasion passed off with far less personal casualty than was to have been apprehended.  In one instance, a portion of a spar fell upon a U. S. gunboat officer, whose name has escaped us, and considerably injured him.

The St. Louis firemen deserve high praise for their prompt and vigorous exertions.  The unfortunate bursting of their hose is to be, to a great extent, attributed to the reckless driving of drays over it, which could not be wholly prevented by the police.  The labors of the firemen were severe, and protracted till near nightfall—relieved by the generosity of Chas. Elleard, who gratuitously handed over a five-dollar greenback, and bade them enjoy “a treat all around.”