History to some can be dry and impersonal. Not in this case. Michael “Mick” Shay and his 96 year old father knew his great grandfather served with the St. Louis Fire Department for many years, but little else. His journey through history uncovered a fascinating and tragic story.
Austin Shay was a skinner, a ladder truck company firefighter of the day, and member of the famed St. Louis Fire Department Pompier Corps. In 1887, the department established the first Pompier Corps. These firefighters taught climbing and rescue skills to other departments across the country. The Pompier Corps used specially developed scaling ladders. The top of the ladder, with its iron catch would be hooked over a window sill and the firefighter would climb the narrow rungs to the window. He would then stand on the sill, pull the ladder up, and raise it to the next window; not a simple or safe exercise.
The younger Mr. Shay also determined his grandfather worked with the legendary Phelim O'Toole famous for the rescue of over a dozen people at the Southern Hotel fire on April 11, 1887. Skinner Shay was also present at the fire which cost O’Toole his life, the fire extinguisher he was attempting to use exploding, killing his fellow fireman.
There were other tragedies from fire as well. Firefighters in the late 1800s worked long hours with little time off, and many mornings, Austin would walk home for breakfast at 7:00 AM before immediately returning to the station for another shift. On one such morning, he arrived to find his own home in flames. His wife, who had risen to make him a hot breakfast, attempted to light the kitchen stove with coal oil, and was fatally burned. While his five children survived, their home was lost.
Mr. Shay and his father were able to visit St. Louis and see many of the areas where their ancestor lived and worked. They also located the Calvary Cemetery graves of Austin Shay, surrounded by his wife and five children. Moved by the new knowledge of his forefather’s life and challenges in the service of his city, Mr. Shay’s father arranged for a headstone to be erected at the previously unmarked grave site. History does make a difference.