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Fire! A big deal in fledging river town

This undated photo from Steve Chou’s historic photo collection shows horses pulling an engine and firefighters from the downtown fire station at the sound of an alarm.


The cry of fire was enough to send a tremble of fear through citizens of 1852 Hannibal, Missouri. The earliest buildings - constructed of wood and clustered in close proximity to the river – served as kindling once a spark of fire took hold.

The memories of the July 1846 fire were still fresh: Fire had claimed six buildings and all of their contents: the grocery store of J.S. Gano, the Stove and Iron Warehouse of D. Gano & Co., the Drug Store of Charles Gleim, the Boot and Shoe store of John J. Higgins, the Grocery and Dry Goods Store of H. Levin, and the Lard Oil Factory of J.S. Gano.

In order to protect their property, in 1849 the volunteers with the Liberty Fire Company worked together to raise money to purchase a suction pump and associated supplies for the city. These men and their ladies conducted fund-raising events in order to pay for this piece of fire fighting equipment, in addition to selling bonds paying 6 percent interest to investors.

The Liberty fire engine was purchased by the city of Hannibal in November 1849 from the Missouri Fire Company in St. Louis. As for the operation of the engine, it was in actuality a water pump on wheels, which required hand power to propel the water through an attached hose.

First test failed

The citizens of the city, excited about the purchase of this $1,000 pumper, were anxious to see the machine at work.

But the first time it was used – in November 1849 – it was an embarrassing failure.

The volunteers of the Liberty Fire Department planned a much heralded exhibition on the riverfront in order to show off the brightly painted firefighting machine.

On Nov. 29, 1849, the Missouri Courier described the scene.

“The Engine was deposited in a safe place, and Saturday was the day fixed upon to test its capacities. Saturday came, and with it drizzly, dirty muddy morning. There was some hesitation about bringing out the nice and glittering structure in such weather, but the desire to ‘try her’ was too great; out it came, and down to the river it rolled. All was ready, and at it they went, each eager with hope and expectation, but alas! These hopes were suddenly dashed to the ground, even as the water itself fell. Another and another attempt was made, with no better success. The water came out in a beautiful stream, but fell dead, scarcely twenty feet from the nozzle, and no effort could force it to a greater distance.”

There was much head scratching on the part of the volunteer members of the fire department, including Nathaniel P. Kunkle, R.F. Lakenan, Samuel R. Raymond, Tilden R. Selmes, Horatio F. Turner, A. Baker Webb, Isaac C. Tomer, Wm. H. Boggs, Moses P. Green, Erasmus M. Moffatt, Edward C. Dunting, George Caplinger and Robert S. Buchanan.

After the water failed to project as anticipated, some of the volunteers suggested that the hose was not good, others that the engine was manned with unpracticed hands, while others boldly asserted that it lacked sufficient power and force, the newspaper reported.

After the finger pointing ceased, it was determined that the true cause of failure was the busting of the hose, of which only a small quantity had been provided by the engine company. New hose was ordered, and once attached to the pump, the unit worked as expected.

Garth Tobacco fire

When John Garth’s tobacco factory, located on the west side of Main Street between Bird and Hill, caught fire in the early morning hours of March 4, 1852, every able-bodied man in town came out to help save Hannibal’s business district.

Those volunteers included 44-year-old Tilden R. Selmes, whose own store was located just a half block away, on the northeast corner of Main and Hill streets.

The credit for preventing the fire from spreading to nearby buildings was given to the Liberty fire engine. The pumper was able to cascade a flow of water into the air that dropped directly on the roof of the Garth factory, thus extinguishing the fire.

What happened?

The investment in the pumper was significant for the people of Hannibal. While they felt secure in the notion that it would help slow the progress of fires in the downtown area, $1,000 was a lot of money.

On Oct. 26, 1854, the Tri-Weekly Messenger posed this question to its readers:

“The Liberty Fire Engine – Where is it? Echo answers where? – Why it is stowed away in the east end of the Market House (at Fifth Street and Broadway) to rust? We venture the assertion that in case a fire should break out in Front street to-day, this engine would be of no service, from the fact that it is rusty and out of order. What say the citizens to holding a public meeting for the purpose of resuscitating this company? We think it would be a good move, and would like to see them take hold of the matter. What say those interested?”

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