PHOTOS: Crewmen doused a mattress fire on the steamboat White Cloud, moored on the north end of the city's landing. They aired the bedding on deck, then dragged it back into a cabin.
They must have missed an ember. About 10 p.m., flames burst from the passenger deck. Watchmen along the crowded landing clanged bells of alarm. Volunteers of Missouri Fire Co. No. 5, first to the scene, saw fire leaping from the White Cloud onto the adjoining steamboat, the Edward Bates.
A hard wind blew from the northeast across the Mississippi River. It would serve as a bellows for the long, destructive night of May 17-18, 1849 - St. Louis' Great Fire.
The firestorm added misery to the city's worst single disaster, a cholera epidemic that would kill at least 4,317 people. The May 17 newspapers were filled with news of death. The White Cloud was just another steamboat from New Orleans.
The Bates burned free of its mooring on what is today's Laclede's Landing and drifted downriver, spreading fire.