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How the great fires changed the fire service

There is nothing unique about the Pittsburgh fire; history proves that Americans ignored the risks until disaster struck


The simultaneous demise of urban volunteer fire companies coupled with repeated implosions of the fire insurance industry due to the great urban fires finally paved the way to professional municipal fire departments.


This is the third of a four-part series on professionalism in firefighting, specifically how it evolved out of the transition from urban volunteers to a paid fire service and how volunteers would later come to embrace the concept of professionalism itself.

Benjamin Franklin founded America’s volunteer fire service, but he was also a philosopher who influenced and shaped our country’s moral character.

Franklin, the founders of the republic, and leading citizens of that era believed in civic virtue. Civic virtue being an ideal that holds citizens individually responsible for shaping and maintaining community life and a government that works for the common good of all people.

In principle, it guides one to pursue civic-minded activities and thereby lead a worthy life. An example of the precepts of civic virtue are the tenets of the Scout Oath.

There will always be some who live life on the fringe of society and flaunt its rules. This creates a natural division between those who obey the rules and those who do not. In the years after our independence was won, civic virtue became our nation’s guiding principle in large part because it was the philosophy of the founding fathers.

Of all the county’s founders, George Washington stands as the highest example of civic virtue. The men who fought the war for independence from England held Washington in high regard as a leader. After winning the war, these citizen soldiers were in turn held in great esteem by the public.

Shifting demographics

Those men and others like them were the type of individuals to serve as volunteer firefighters. Running a newly founded country required leadership, and those who filled that need comprise a group I refer to as community elites.

Community elites included leading citizens, clerics, businessmen, government officials, and in the post-revolution years the membership of volunteer fire companies. By the early 1800s, however, the oldest elites among the elite volunteer firemen would have reached the point where their age meant giving up their duties.

As a result, the membership demographics of volunteer fire companies began to change. The new and much younger members, while still attached to the old ideal of civic virtue, nonetheless began to use fire companies as an outlet for social activities.

For some departments this meant building libraries, but almost all convened musters, held parades, and sported fancy uniforms. All of this enthusiasm fueled friendly competition between companies. But within the brief span of a few decades, volunteer companies turned into something far different from what the public expected and needed.

Within many urban fire departments, civic virtue had given way first to socializing, then competition, followed by fighting and sometimes violence. To some extent, this pattern of behavior occurred in Pittsburgh. Some fire companies thus began to exhibit something akin to the rugged individualism for which America was noted.

Pittsburgh’s great fire

Set at the confluence where two rivers merged to form one larger river in the far southwest corner of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh and its two neighboring towns Allegheny and Birmingham comprised a rough, but growing industrial manufacturing center.

A triangular shaped piece of land with rivers on two sides, its network of streets were made up of two co-joined grids each running parallel to a river and parted by Grant’s Hill.

In the 1840s, there were 10 volunteer fire companies with the municipalities of Allegheny and Pittsburgh. On April 10, 1845, for various reasons, but due mostly to negligence, five of Pittsburgh’s six hand pumpers were in something less than full-operational status.

That single fact would prove disastrous.

It also did not help that the under-sized municipal water system lacked the residual pressure to feed supply lines or hoses from the hydrants and that reservoirs were low due to the dry conditions. However, even if the pressure was available the companies lacked sufficient lengths of hose to run hand lines or supply lines.

In the afternoon of that dry, windy April day, the story has it that a woman tending an outdoor fire to heat water for washing clothes became distracted and a great fire resulted.

The futile fight

The small downtown center was densely built of wood frame and brick structures and provided sufficient fuel for a severe fire. The natural topographic contours of the river valleys complemented the east-west street grid making it easy for the westerly wind to drive the flames down into the heart of the city thus creating a great fire.

In the face of that wind-driven flame-front, the volunteers could do no more than make determined stands at strategic locations to save a few important structures.

Ultimately, the fire ran its course burning all available fuel and thus dying on an exposed bluff above the Monongahela River along the fire’s southern flank. The fire peaked in three hours and burned itself out in another three.

The fire covered an area one mile long and one-third mile wide, about 20 city blocks, or roughly 55 to 60 acres. It consumed over 1,000 buildings, left an estimated 6,000 homeless, and claimed several lives.

It doesn’t stand out as one our greatest great fires. And even now it is mostly lost to history with few of the city’s current residents even aware that a great fire had ever occurred.

Ignored risk

There is nothing unique or especially notable about the Pittsburgh fire that isn’t shared by other cities that experienced great fires. The causes and circumstances that contribute to such fires are near universal, not just among American cities, but with foreign countries as well.

When civic leaders or the elites of the private and public sector ignore the reality of densely built, highly combustible cities, large populations, mixed occupancy classes, inadequate water supply, too few fire hydrants, poorly maintained fire equipment, and no organized fire defense system you have a recipe for disaster.

These factors appear in almost all accounts of great urban fires. History proves that Americans ignored the risks by looking the other until disaster struck them. Until the fire insurance industry itself nearly collapsed under the weight of successive great fires during the second half of the 19th century, not much was done to mitigate the hazards.

The simultaneous demise of urban volunteer fire companies coupled with repeated implosions of the fire insurance industry due to the great urban fires finally paved the way to professional municipal fire departments.

Read the next article in the series: How fire departments went from volunteer to career

This article was originally posted June 9, 2015. It has been updated with new information.

Bruce Hensler served as a firefighter from 1976 to 2011 in career, combination and volunteer departments. He previously served as a fire program specialist in the Emergency Response Support Branch of the U.S. Fire Administration, retiring in 2017. He also previously served as deputy director of the operations division for the firefighter training program in Maine. Hensler has a master’s degree in public administration. His interest in history led him to write “Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service.” More information about his book is available at Connect with Hensler on LinkedIn.