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1 in 11 St. Louisans died in the cholera epidemic of 1849, plus other local disaster facts to know

St. Louis Fire, illustration in a German book from 1857.
Henry Lewis | Wikimedia Commons
St. Louis Fire, illustration in a German book from 1857.

Fires, floods, tornadoes, oh my! St. Louis has been witness to many kinds of disaster over the years and on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we talked about the most disastrous ones … and where you can find remnants of their existence still today.

Joining us to discuss were RenegadeSTL’s tour guides, Adriana Perrone and Amanda Clark, who lead a tour on a similar topic. The tour lasts two hours and is done in both bus or walking formats.

How do you visualize a disaster that is 100 years come and gone?

“There’s a lot to be said about the gaps that are left behind,” Perrone said. “You might just see an empty field, but we’ll tell you why it was an empty field today. Not only that, we can show you things — the buildings that are rebuilt are built differently because of the things that happened, we learned from those things. With cholera, it is more than a story, but a fire, there are tangible things we can show you.”

Related: ‘Look up in your own city; it is a great place to live,’ say leaders of ‘Whole Damn City Tour'

“We use the words disaster and catastrophes very loosely—sometimes it is a political disaster, social disaster, physical disaster…we connect the deadliest fire in St. Louis history at the Missouri Athletic Club to Pruitt-Igoe.”

Here are three of Perrone and Clark’s favorite moments from St. Louis’ disaster history:

The St. Louis Fire of 1849

Ruins of the St. Louis Fire of 1849.
Credit Thomas Martin Easterly | Wikimedia Commons
Daguerreotype of the ruins of the St. Louis Fire of 1849.

The fire started on May 17, 1849 and destroyed a large part of St. Louis. It originated on the steamboats using the Mississippi River. It spread quickly to the land and decimated huge sections of the city. Remarkably, only three people were killed while the fire raged for 11 hours and consumed 23 steamboats.

“My favorite part is how they saved the Old Cathedral by blowing up buildings as the fire was coming so there would be a fire break and they could save the building—desperate measures, people running all over the place, steamboats sinking,” Perrone said. “We try to make it visual and emotional and that human aspect.”

The Cholera Epidemic of 1849

An electron microscope image of Vibrio cholerae bacteria, which infect the digestive system.
Credit Ronald Taylor, Tom Kirn, Louisa Howard | Wikimedia Commons
An electron microscope image of Vibrio cholerae bacteria, which infect the digestive system.

At the same time that the fire of 1849 ravaged St. Louis buildings, St. Louis’ largest cholera epidemic was also taking a toll on the city. A growing city of 75,000, with more immigrants arriving all the time, St. Louis had no sewer system, which bred bacterial infection in the water and killed those infected often within a day’s time. One in every 11 St. Louisans died—a number totaling over 6,000, Clark said.

“Everyone was just grabbing at straws, trying to figure out what was going on,” Clark said. “They thought it was the air, the smoke … there was a month where the mayor of St. Louis banned vegetables.”

Missouri Athletic Club Fire of 1914

Credit publichall | Wikimedia Commons
The Missouri Athletic Club's downtown clubhouse, rebuilt after the 1914 fire.

The Missouri Athletic Club Fire of 1914 is the deadliest fire in St. Louis history, killing 30 members, guests and staff and completely destroying the building. There are plenty of arguments as to why the fire was started, but Perrone said there are many remnants of that fire in new buildings totally unrelated to the MAC today.

You see, the stairways in the clubhouse were not protected from the fire.

“A lot of people were trapped—bedsheets out the window, jumping on roofs, all these very dynamic escapes you’d see in a movie but really happened,” Perrone said.

This experience led to the implementation of dynamic, masonry-enclosed stairwells in the St. Louis area, Perrone said.

Listen to more discussion and descriptions of various catastrophes in the St. Louis are and how they impact our lives today here:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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