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ST. LOUIS  • The Great Fire of 1849 consumed 23 steamboats and the riverside commercial district. It gave firefighters their first hometown hero, Capt. Thomas Targee, who was blown up while clearing buildings for a firebreak.

As the fire raged, a far deadlier event was ravaging St. Louis — a cholera epidemic that killed at least 6 percent of the city's population. It decimated the immigrant slums. Many wealthier residents, including some City Council members, fled to the country.

The cholera inflicted its worst in late July with a weekly toll of 640, seven times the city's normal death rate. The July 18, 1849, Missouri Republican newspaper noted 88 burials that day — not by name, only grouped by cemetery.

Cholera, a bacterial infection, can kill a healthy person within hours. It often spreads through water contaminated by human waste. (That link was not discovered until 1854, in London.) Cholera first reached St. Louis from Europe in 1832, killing 300, and returned in each of the next three summers.

Look Back:  Cholera epidemic of 1849
A daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly in 1854 of cows drinking from the remnants of Chouteau's Pond, a large man-made lake south of Market Street that city officials began draining after the 1849 epidemic. Many suspected that the pond had played a role in spreading the disease. In the early days of St. Louis, the pond was a pleasant place for picnics. But as the city and its industry grew, businesses such as tanneries and butcher shops crowded along its banks, quickly turning the pond into a cesspool. In the background is a lead mill. (Missouri History Museum)

By 1849, St. Louis was a fast-growing city of 75,000, with immigrants arriving by the steamboat-load. It also had no sewer system. The combination brewed an epidemic.

Because building sewers was expensive, city engineer Henry Kayser chose in 1842 the cheaper strategy of diverting wastewater into the honeycomb of limestone caves beneath the city. A plugged sinkhole eventually flooded a low spot at Biddle and 10th streets, northwest of today's Edward Jones Dome. The backup was derided as "Kayser's Lake."

Fouled drinking water spread the disease. More than 120 died of cholera in April 1849, the month Mayor James G. Barry was elected. The toll grew six-fold in May, the month of the fire, and reached 2,200 in July. Barry stayed as his councilmen fled. The city established a health board with supreme powers that banned vegetables, burned tar to battle "foul air" and turned schools into hospitals.

Cholera deaths

A listing of burials by cemetery published in the July 23, 1849, St. Louis Weekly Reveille during the cholera epidemic. There were so many deaths, the newspapers often did not list the names of victims. Missouri History Museum image

The worst death rates were in the slums on the north and south ends of present-day downtown, where bodies were buried in ditches. But cholera also killed Pierre Chouteau Sr., a member of the founding family.

The number of deaths dropped suddenly in August. Leaders began belated reforms in earnest, building sewers and draining Chouteau's Pond south of Market Street. They established Bellefontaine Cemetery.

The official death toll was 4,317.

The great fire of 1849