Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Family History Writing Challenge Day 3

St. Louis Levy 1848
Disaster struck St. Louis in two different ways in 1849. With a population that had grown to about 73,000 people, immigrants were steadily pouring into the area. On January 2, 1849 the steamboats Aleck Scott and St. Paul arrived from New Orleans carrying many seriously ill passengers. They were just the first of many boats bringing victims of cholera to the city. Though it wasn't known at the time, cholera is a bacterial abdominal infection that spreads mainly through water contaminated by human waste. It can kill within hours. At the time, the city had no sewer system. By mid-May an average of twenty-five people per day died, many of them young children. The highest death rates were in the slums where the living quarters were over-crowded. The death toll was at least 4,317, or nearly six percent of the population, by the end of the year.

St. Louis Fire of 1849
While it does not appear that Murdoch or Dickson were personally impacted by cholera, what happened in the midst of the epidemic most certainly affected them. On May 17, 1849 a steamboat named White Cloud caught fire while it was moored at the foot of Cherry Street. The flames spread to neighboring boat Edward Bates, which either broke free or was cut loose. The current carried it into other docked boats, catching them on fire as well. Strong winds carried the flames to piles of freight stacked on the levy, then on to the wooden warehouses on Front Street. Despite the heroic efforts of over 1,000 volunteer firefighters, the blaze carried to other buildings downtown. The fire continued throughout the night. Eventually, the fire destroyed four hundred buildings in fifteen city blocks, leaving hundreds homeless and thousands without work. Additionally, twenty-three steamers and nine flatboats and barges were lost. The total damages were estimated at nearly $6,000,000.

There is no question that Murdoch & Dickson lost their business location that night, as it was only one block away from the levy. Murdoch also lost his home, since he lived above the business. (Dickson had married and moved into a home with his wife in 1847. It was not impacted by the fire.) One can only imagine what it must have been like to rebuild the business once the building and all the merchandise inside of it were destroyed. Their records were lost, so it must have been trying to reconstruct the payables and receivables for the company. This experience may have been the impetus for Murdoch & Dickson later taking a prominent role in the establishment of several insurance companies.

One positive result of the fire was a change in the building code in St. Louis. The city was rebuilt with an emphasis on fire-proofing. The streets were wider and the new buildings were generally four to five stories in height, with heavy brick walls facing the street front. Murdoch & Dickson rebuilt downtown, with the new office building located at 63 N. Main (formerly N. First Street).