ST. LOUIS • The St. Louis Fire Department respects its heroes, and on Saturday paid tribute to one of its earliest and greatest.
Four generations of descendants of Capt. Thomas B. Targee were on hand at department headquarters to dedicate a compilation of research material on Targee and the Great Fire of 1849 and a searchlight from the decommissioned fireboat Captain Targee.
The items flank a large print of a painting of Targee in the lobby of the headquarters at 1421 North Jefferson Avenue.
Targee was a 40-year-old volunteer firefighter killed on May 18, 1849, as he tried to place explosives to halt a devastating fire that began the night before on the steamer White Cloud and wasn't stopped until it had consumed 23 steamboats and 430 buildings along the city's riverfront.
Great-great-great grandson David Targee Smith of Dallas said St. Louis firefighters know of his ancestor's sacrifice but few area residents know anything about the fire. Smith called it a seminal event for the city that led to building codes and formation of a paid Fire Department.
A mattress fire on the White Cloud may have touched off the conflagration. Flames burst from the White Cloud about 10 p.m. and fire alarms were sounded. Missouri Fire Co. No. 5 was the first to respond.
Soon, 23 boats were ablaze on the riverfront. Embers started fires in buildings along Front Street and they began leaping block to block.
A New York City native, Targee had moved to St. Louis with his wife and three children in 1836. He worked as a merchant and manager of an auction house and joined Union Fire Co. No. 2 and served in it until 1839. He was one of the organizers and served two years as president of Missouri Fire Co. No. 5. By the morning of May 18, the firefighters were desperate to stop the fire's progression. They decided to create a firebreak by blowing up buildings in its path.
Targee was carrying gunpowder to the sixth and final building — a music store at Second and Market streets — when it exploded prematurely and killed him.
Neil Svetanics, a former St. Louis fire chief, said using explosives to create a firebreak is usually not a good idea but it worked on that occasion. Targee was one of three people who died in the fire.
Svetanics said 1849 was a good time and an awful time for St. Louis. City businesses were busy outfitting would-be gold miners headed for a gold rush in California, but a cholera epidemic raging at the time of the fire would kill more than 4,300 people.
Targee was said to have gone home on the morning of the 18th to see his wife and children a last time. His 10th child was born on the next day, only to die nine days later.
Targee was hailed as the "Hero Who Saved The City." He was buried at Christ Church with public honors and the city appointed his widow to succeed him in his city job. His portrait, painted by Matthew Hastings, a fellow member of Missouri Fire Co. No. 5, hangs at the Missouri Historical Society.
The Fire Department named its first fireboat the Captain Targee in 1979, but the boat was decommissioned in 1989 and later scrapped.
Juanita Morrow, wife of David Targee Smith, began "looking for a few things" about Targee in 2000. Her search produced the fat compilation of research about the fire that will be on display at the Fire Department headquarters.
She said family members are gratified by the Fire Department's interest.
Svetanics said heroes like Targee — and Phelim O'Toole and Michael Hester, who saved about 20 people in the deadly Southern Hotel fire in 1877 — inspire firefighters to this day.