top of page

City’s early steam fire engines were no match for 1878 blaze

This newspaper photo, from the Hannibal Courier-Post circa 1941, shows the Hannibal volunteer fire department with a hose cart circa 1879. At the time of the photo, Henry Walker was fire chief. He is seated on the engine, to the far right. This photo represents the fire department the year following the explosion and subsequent fire at the Hannibal Meat Co.


As early as 1854, a pork packing plant existed on Hannibal’s riverfront, beginning at North Street and proceeding a block north to Rock Street.

At the beginning of July 1878, the operating firm doing business in this large complex was known as the Hannibal Meat Company, and J.T.K. Hayward – a long-time Hannibal wholesale grocer - was manager.

In the early morning hours of July 1, 1878, there was an explosion, followed by a catastrophic fire in the ice room of the facility. The explosion resulted in the loss of at least two lives, the critical injury to as many as three more individuals, as well as the complete destruction of the ice building itself.

This fire, as reported in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on July 2 and 3, 1878, served as a wake-up call to Hannibal’s city leaders, who had turned their backs to the potential for such a disaster, by ignoring the city’s unpreparedness to deal with such a catastrophe.

Steam engines

Hannibal’s volunteer fire department had two horse-pulled steam engines at the time of the fire, one, dubbed “Hannibal,” which was in the shop for repairs, and the other, “Archer, ” which was deemed to be worthless by city officials.

“The fire department was tardy in arriving,” the Globe Democrat reported on July 2, “and having only one engine in working order, and it half disabled, accomplished very little in the way of checking the flames.”

The next morning, city officials sent James Plowman, chief engineer of the fire department, to Quincy, in order to procure an engine for a few days, until Hannibal’s units were on the mend.

Once Quincy’s engine was safely stored in Hannibal, “… citizens will feel much safer tonight,” the newspaper reported.

In 1879, the new mayor, Judge W.B. Drescher, appointed Hannibal South Side druggist, Henry Walker, to serve as fire chief. A trained mechanic, Walker was credited with putting a steam engine in working order and into operation at Hannibal.

Killed, injured

The Quincy Whig of July 11, 1878 listed names of those severely injured in the Hannibal Meat Company explosion on July 1, 1878. The men were in the building at the time of the blast. The ice building had previously been used as the Hannibal calaboose, according to the Whig article.

William Usher, fireman. The English-born son of Thomas Usher and Edith White Usher, married Anne Marie Kramme on April 10, 1865. Surviving him were his wife; his mother; and six children: John B. Usher, born 1864; Mary J. Usher, born 1868; William Usher, born 1870; Henry Washington Usher, born 1872; Charles Milne Usher, born 1874; and Frank J. Usher, born in 1877. Both before and after the accident, the family made its home on the south side of Center Street, west of Maple Avenue, Hannibal. (1231 Center) The Whig article noted that Usher suffered terribly, lingering in great pain until morning, when he died.

Henry Gould, assistant engineer. In 1879, Eliza Gould, widow of Henry Gould, was living at 150 Palmyra Avenue. Information regarding his death was contradicted in the newspapers of the day, but records show that he was buried at Riverside Cemetery in 1878.

Alexander Walker, engineer. (It is not clear if Alexander was kin to Henry Walker, who was named fire chief in 1879.)


Working at the Hannibal Meat Company, as listed in the 1879 city directory, the year following the fire:

James West, foreman

Henry Warden, superintendent

Jefferson Treadway, canner

John M. Steele, driver

Emanuel Shrakes, laborer

George A. Ross, laborer

Henry C. Ransdall, watchman

Edward Poke, helper

James Newbound, canner

John Narey, helper

Barbara M. Moak, helper

Mary Miller, helper

Alex Milne, butcher

Emma Mastin, helper

George Maurr, cook

Henry Killian, butcher

John Killian, butcher

John Johnson, helper

Thomas Johnson, employee

Charles Johnson, helper

William T. Jackson, bookkeeper

John H. Howland, cashier

William Gould, laborer

Charles Ellenbaum, butcher

Frank Ellenbaum, butcher

John W. Doriety, butcher

William Dougherty, employee

John Conners, yardman

Frank R. Collins, office boy

William Campbell, tinsmith

Albert Buchanan, helper

William C. Booth, foreman

Charles Bath, beef curer

J.D. Armstrong, purchasing agent

Frank Allenbaum, butcher

Hannibal Meat Company

In January 1879, The Hannibal Meat Co., owned by George H. Perkins and George Brown, of Philadelphia, Pa., applied for a patent for their invention regarding the canning of meat.

The following information was found online in the “Specifications and drawings of Patents issued from the U.S. Patent Office.”

  1. A canning-cell formed of rigid material, corresponding in shape to the sides and bottom of the can to be contained therein, and adapted to support said can upon sides and bottom against bursting-pressures, substantially as set forth.

  2. A series of canning-cells formed of rigid material, as described, corresponding in shape to the sides and bottoms of the cans to be contained therein, and adapted to support said cans upon sides and bottoms against bursting-pressures, substantially as set forth.

  3. The supporting boiling-case herein described, consisting of one or more cells formed of rigid material, and exactly corresponding in shape to the sides and bottom of the can or cans to be contained therein, in combination with a cover provided with one or more openings, and adapted to bear upon the tops of the cans and enclose them, substantially for the purposes set forth.

Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at

These sketches represent a request for a patent for an invention by George H. Perkins and George Brown, of Philadelphia, Pa., to be used in packaging fresh meat in 1879. The two men owned the Hannibal Meat Company plant in Hannibal, Mo.

 Recent Posts 
bottom of page