Great Disasters of the 19th Century

Fires, Floods, Epidemics, and Volcanic Eruptions Left Their Mark on the 1800s

The 19th century was a time of great progress but was also marked by major disasters, including such famous calamities as the Johnstown Flood, the Great Chicago Fire, and the enormous volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in the Pacific Ocean.

The growing newspaper business, and the spread of the telegraph, made it possible for the public to read extensive reports of distant disasters. When the SS Arctic sank in 1854, New York City newspapers competed extensively to get the first interviews with survivors. Decades later, photographers flocked to document destroyed buildings at Johnstown, and discovered a brisk business selling prints of the devastated town in western Pennsylvania.

1871: The Great Chicago Fire

Currier and Ives lithograph of the Chicago Fire
The Chicago Fire depicted in a Currier and Ives lithograph. Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

A popular legend, which lives on today, holds that a cow being milked by a Mrs. O'Leary kicked over a kerosene lantern and ignited a blaze which destroyed an entire American city.

The tale of Mrs. O'Leary's cow is probably not true, but that doesn't make the Great Chicago Fire any less legendary. The flames did spread from O'Leary's barn, stoked by the winds and heading into the thriving city's business district. By the next day , much of the great city was reduced to charred ruins and many thousands of people were left homeless.

1835: The Great New York Fire

Depiction of the Great New York Fire of 1836
The Great New York Fire of 1835. Getty Images

New York City doesn't have many buildings from the colonial period, and there's a reason for that: an enormous fire in December 1835 destroyed much of lower Manhattan. A huge portion of the city burned out of control, and the blaze was only stopped from spreading when Wall Street was literally blown up. The buildings purposely collapsed with gunpowder charges created a rubble wall that protected the rest of the city from the oncoming flames.

1854: The Wreck of the Steamship Arctic

Lithograph of the SS Arctic
SS Arctic. Library of Congress

When we think of maritime disasters, the phrase "women and children first" always comes to mind. But saving the most helpless passengers on a doomed ship was not always the law of the sea, and when one of the greatest ships afloat was going down the ship's crew seized the lifeboats and left most of the passengers to fend for themselves.

The sinking of the SS Arctic in 1854 was a major disaster and also a shameful episode which shocked the public.

1832: The Cholera Epidemic

Cholera victim with bluish skin in early medical textbook.
Cholera victim depicted in 19th century medical textbook. Getty Images

Americans watched with dread as newspaper reports told how cholera had spread from Asia to Europe, and was killing thousands in Paris and London in early 1832. The horrific disease, which seemed to infect and kill people within hours, reached North America that summer. It took thousands of lives, and nearly half the residents of New York City fled to the countryside.

1883: Eruption of the Krakatoa Volcano

Illustration of volcanic island Krakatoa
The volcanic island of Krakatoa before it blew apart. Kean Collection/Getty Images

The eruption of the enormous volcano on the island of Krakatoa in the Pacific Ocean generated what was probably the loudest noise ever heard on earth, with people as far away as Australia hearing the colossal explosion. Ships were pelted with debris, and the resulting tsunami killed many thousands of people.

And for nearly two years people around the world saw an eerie effect of the huge volcanic eruption, as sunsets turned a strange blood red. Matter from the volcano had gotten into the upper atmosphere, and people as far away as New York and London thus felt the resonance of Krakatoa.

1815: Eruption of Mount Tambora

The eruption of Mount Tambora, a massive volcano in present day Indonesia, was the largest volcanic eruption of the 19th century. It has always been overshadowed by the eruption of Krakatoa decades later, which was reported quickly via telegraph.

Mount Tambora is significant not just for the immediate loss of life it caused, but for a weird weather event it created a year later, The Year Without a Summer.

1821: Hurricane Called "The Great September Gale" Devastated New York City

William C. Redfield
William C. Redfield, whose study of the 1821 hurricane led to modern storm science. Richardson Publishers 1860/public domain

New York City was caught completely by surprise by a powerful hurricane on September 3, 1821. The next morning's newspapers recounted harrowing tales of destruction, with much of lower Manhattan having been flooded by storm surge.

The "Great September Gale" had a very important legacy, as a New Englander, William Redfield, walked the path of the storm after it moved through Connecticut. By noting the direction trees had fallen, Redfield theorized that hurricanes were great circular whirlwinds. His observations were essentially the beginning of modern hurricane science.

1889: The Johnstown Flood

Photograph of houses damaged in the Johnstown Flood.
Houses destroyed in the Johnstown Flood. Getty Images

The city of Johnstown, a thriving community of working people in western Pennsylvania, was virtually destroyed when a massive wall of water came rushing down a valley on a Sunday afternoon. Thousands were killed in the flood.

The entire episode, it turned out, could have been avoided. The flood occurred after a very rainy spring, but what really caused the disaster was the collapse of a flimsy dam built so that wealthy steel magnates could enjoy a private lake. The Johnstown Flood wasn't just a tragedy, it was a scandal of the Gilded Age.

The damage to Johnstown was devastating, and photographers rushed to the scene to document it. It was one of the first disasters to be photographed extensively, and prints of the photographs were sold widely.

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McNamara, Robert. "Great Disasters of the 19th Century." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Great Disasters of the 19th Century. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Great Disasters of the 19th Century." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).