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Main St., flames spark fire department’s birth

Shown above is one of Hannibal’s early fire fighting crews, circa 1877-79. They are, front row, left to right, Oliver Beach, J.C. Leonard, Robert Pratt, J. Cash, Robert W. Cash, J.W. Doyle and John S. Herrick. Seated are Theron B. Parks and Chief Henry Walker. Photo contributed by Kyle Greenville in 2022. (In 1916, Theron B. Parks was Hannibal fire chief)


There was a fire, in Hannibal’s distant past, the latest in a series of suspected incendiary fires, which served as a tipping point toward the establishment of Hannibal’s first official fire department.

This particular fire, occurring in the wee early hours of Wednesday, July 4, 1860, so shocked and angered the populace of emerging Hannibal, that business leaders finally - after several years of wrangling with the issue - decided to take action.

Hannibal was to obtain a fire engine.

Subscribers to the newly formed “Citizens’ Fire Engine Committee” met Saturday, July 21, 1860, at Melpontian Hall, located on the second floor of the building on the northeast corner of Centre and Third streets. R.W. Moss served as the meeting’s chair.

Upon authorization by the committee, John L. Lacy, city recorder, and James M. Morris and Samuel L. Hallett, machinists for the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad Shops, traveled to St. Louis on Thursday, July 26, 1860, to view two used side-stroke engines that were for sale. One was manufactured by L. Button & Co., of Waterford, New York, and the other by Hunneman & Company of Boston, Mass.

Lacy negotiated the sale of the Button fire engine, “Jefferson,” and the hose carriage, “Bon Accord,” which were the property of the old Laclede Company in St. Louis, for $700 cash. They also loaned to the city of Hannibal, 300 feet of old hose.

Test of fire

The first opportunity to test the fire engine “Jefferson” and the hose carriage “Bon Accord,” came at 3 a.m. Tuesday, July 31, 1860.

The Hannibal Daily Messenger described the scene in its Aug. 1, 1860 edition.

“The whole city was soon aroused, and hundreds rushing wildly pell mell towards the scene of the conflagration. The fire proved to be in a small one story frame, with a high stone basement, situated on Main street, (across Bear Creek) South Hannibal.

“The citizens’ fire company, with the fire engine Jefferson, and hose carriage Bon Accord, were soon on the ground, though by the time the fire had got under such headway that no earthly power could have saved the building. There not being hose enough to reach Bear Creek, the suction was put in a well, but unfortunately there was not sufficient water in it to fill the hose more than 30 feet, and the gallant company and eager spectators were doomed to disappointment in not seeing the engine work in the time of actual need.”

The house and tailor shop located in the destroyed building was occupied by Mr. Jno. Ebenhack.

Fire triggers decision

First, a little history:

Shoot, Davis and Jordan erected a large stable in 1853, on the northeast corner of Main and Centre streets, in Hannibal, and operated a livery business at the location until 1857. At that time, they sold their stock and transformed the stables into business buildings.

The five separate storefronts, facing Main Street and owned by William Shoot and his partner, Davis, filled the entirety of Lots 8 and 9, Block 6 in the town of Hannibal. (Source, The History of Hannibal, Hannibal City Directory 1871-72, accessed via the Hannibal Free Public Library’s web site.)

In 1860, Jackson Riley was renting the cellar and first floor of the storefront on the northeast corner of Main and Centre, and utilized it for his wholesale grocery and liquor business.

William Shoot, along with his son-in-law, Charles Heywood, and members of their families shared the second floor as their personal residences. Mary J. Shoot, wife of William, also maintained a millinery shop on this building’s second floor.

On the third floor, the Masons and Good Templars occupied meeting space.

And that’s where this story actually begins.

Fire! Fire! Fire!

At 3 a.m. on Wednesday, July 4, 1860, the rusty fire bell in Hannibal’s Central Park rang out so that all could hear. The bell, and the bright flames visible along Hannibal’s primary business district near the riverfront, brought hoards of people out into the night to witness the horror of Hannibal’s 200 block of North Main Street on fire.

The fire started in the rear of Jackson Riley’s store, then, aided by a light wind, moved to the north, in the direction of Bird Street.

There, the carriage repository and agriculture warehouse occupied by G.W. Caplinger and Co., caught fire.

Soon the building next door to the north, the shop of D.P. Harris, tobacconist, went up in flames.

Next, the three-story building owned by Robert Buchanan and occupied by George P. Ray as a drug store and residence, caught fire.

Behind the buildings, toward the river, was the lumber yard of Mr. F. Davis. Some 300,000 feet of lumber was reported to have burned.

The Massasoit House, formerly the Leggett House, owned by Mrs. Green, then caught fire. The occupant was Richard Hulse, who managed to save most of his furniture, although it was considerably damaged.

It is at the Massasoit House that the volunteers fighting the fire were able to arrest the flames.

The Hannibal Daily Messenger reported: “Messrs. Harris and Preston Caplinger both made narrow escapes of their lives, the latter getting all of his clothes burned.”

No fire engine

Without a fire engine, the citizens were reliant upon a bucket brigade, presumably lifting water from the river, which was then passed hand to hand by volunteers forming a line to the scene of the fire on Main Street.

The Hannibal Democrat newspaper published an extra edition on July 4, 1860, and a story about the fire was subsequently reprinted in the Louisville (Ky.) Daily Herald on July 9.

The temper level was at a high pitch during this pre-war era in Hannibal’s history, with the fingers of blame for a series of significant Hannibal fires pointing in every direction.

The Hannibal Democrat wrote: “A large number of men refusing to assist in passing water, an appeal was made to the ladies present to assist, when about 200 promptly responded and formed a line, passing the buckets to the fire, among whom were some of the first ladies of the city. All praise is due them.”

Second engine

A second fire engine for the city’s use was purchased by subscription, and may have been the aforementioned Hunneman engine.

South Hannibal

Even as far back in time as 1860, South Hannibal was divided from Hannibal proper by the course of Bear Creek and the railroad tracks that followed the creek through the valley. Both the tracks and the creek could, in turn, obstruct traffic from crossing in a timely manner.

In mid July, following the fire just 10 days prior, Henry W. Farly, master mechanic for the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, made the offer of constructing a third engine in the railroad’s shops, to be reserved for use in South Hannibal.

The Hannibal Daily Messenger of July 14, 1860, offered the particulars.

“Mr. Farley’s superior ability as a machinist is sufficient evidence of the success of the enterprise, if it is once taken in hand.”

That engine was stored in an engine house constructed upon the railroad’s property, south of Main Street in South Hannibal.

The engine and engine house remained in place until July 1877, when the Hannibal Council recommended, “that the Engine House in South Hannibal (on the H&St.J property) together with the old hand engine and such other condemned property as may be of no service to the department be sold.”

Citizens Fire Company No. 1, advertised a promenade concert in the Hannibal Daily Messenger, Sept. 22, 1860.

Side-stroke fire engine. Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield (Mass.) History. This 1872 model was made by Button & Sons. Hannibal purchased a used Button Co., side-stroke fire engine from old Laclede Company in St. Louis in July 1860. Wikipedia

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. Books available on by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870,” and “Hannibal’s ‘West End,’” 47 stories of the Market Street Wedge and on west to Lindell Avenue. Montgomery can be reached at Her collective works can be found at


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