His wife Lydia, son Charles and daughter Maybelle.
While attempting to extinguish a fire in a sidewalk lunch stand, the chemical fire extinguisher that Captain Sweeney was attempting to use exploded. He died at the scene. Captain Sweeney was a member of Hook & Ladder Company #3.
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John Thomas Sweeney - Short Biography
(From records and documentation obtained at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center)
John Thomas Sweeney was born in St. Louis on April 3, 1860 and was the oldest of eight children. Their parents’ names were Edward Robert Sweeney, born in Ohio to Irish immigrants, and Elizabeth Fahey who arrived in St. Louis from Ireland with her parents John and Mary. St. Louis was very welcoming to the Irish, yet often the only jobs they could find were the dangerous, lower-paying services jobs such as factory laborers, policemen, firemen and military servicemen. A large Irish-Catholic neighborhood known as “Kerry Patch” formed in the northeast section of the city. The Irish in St. Louis looked out for each other, were fiercely loyal and believed that any Irishman who tried, could succeed.
The Sweeney family home was located at 1201 North 7th Street, one block west of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in the eastern edge of Kerry Patch. St. Patrick’s was the largest Irish parish in the city and the grade school was taught by the Christian Brothers. Edward Sweeney worked his way up to the position of Foreman at the St. Louis Brass & Hardware Company, which was a brass casting foundry on 2nd Street. John Sweeney and two of his brothers Ed Jr. and James, were trained as brass moulders at the foundry, casting items such as light fixtures, bells, decorative hinges, door knobs, etc.
On December 3, 1885, John (now age 25) joined the St. Louis Fire Department with a group of thirteen other men to begin training. He was assigned to Hook & Ladder Co. No. 3 located at 216 N. 7th Street. About eight years prior, this particular fire company, along with H&L Co. No. 4, were the first two stations in the country to be trained with the Pompier ladder. A device introduced in St. Louis from Germany, Pompier ladders were 16 foot oak poles with rows of handles/rungs and a large iron gooseneck hook that allowed fireman to gain access to upper floors of tall buildings, beyond the reach of truck ladders. These pompier ladders were now standard equipment in all large cities in America. Within a short time, John Sweeney distinguished himself as one of the best “Pompiermen” in the city, demonstrating bravery, strength and agility at several large fires.
John married his sweetheart Lydia Annette Chesley, daughter of Jonathan Chesley, the wealthy proprietor of the St. Clair Hotel located catty-corner from the St. Louis Cathedral. At first, John and Lydia rented an apartment near 14th and Cass, and later moved to a house at the corner of 9th and Tyler. On January 5, 1887 Lydia gave birth to their first son John C. who died after four months. On June 27, 1888 Charles Thomas was born, followed by daughter Maybelle Agnes on Dec. 17, 1890.
On August 10, 1887 Hook & Ladder Co. 3 was called to a fire at the three-story brick warehouse on North 2nd Street, and Captain Barney McKernan was killed when the roof and walls collapsed. Soon after the incident, John Sweeney’s solid reputation gained him promotion to Captain, and he took charge of the crew and horse-drawn rig. The Hayes Aerial H&L Truck was equipped with a 65 foot hand-cranked extension ladder, pompier ladders, Babcock fire extinguishers, helmets, ropes, lanterns, axes and other tools. Fireman Tom Dolan of Co. 3 is quoted as saying that “Johnnie Sweeney was a very careful and painstaking man, and paid great attention to everything connected with his apparatus.”
While making a routine inspection of equipment in January of 1892, John noticed that one of the copper Babcock fire extinguishers was malfunctioning. The device was sent to Cupferle Bros. Mfg Co. where the Fire Department regularly sent all their extinguishers. It was determined that a new bottom section was needed, so the repair shop fabricated the new part, secured it into place and soldered it all around to make it water tight.
Babcock’s worked by inserting a small glass vile of acid into a chamber at the top, and then filling the tank with water to a designated mark. The filled Babcock, weighing 75 pounds, was charged by screwing down a bolt at the top which broke the glass vile, causing a pressurized reaction of about 150 psi. At this pressure, the contents could be expelled to a distance of nearly 60 feet. Cupferle’s tested all repaired extinguishers to withstand at least 150 psi in order to pass.
As soon as the Babcock was returned to H&L Co. 3, John made sure to test it himself before putting it into service. He remarked to some of the men that he suspected the extinguisher may still have a leak somewhere because the pressure seemed weak. Fireman Lynch said that “John wanted to be certain it was right and took a soldering iron and solder and went to work on it himself. Now what the man did of course, he did with the best intentions in the world, to make the insurance doubly sure.” The repair job appeared to work and the extinguisher performed perfectly at two separate fires in February.
Then, just before noon on Sunday March 6, 1892, an alarm came from box 51 and Hook & Ladder Co. 3 responded along with Engine Co’s. 6, 14 & 24, to a small fire at Joseph Schramm’s Lunch Stand on the north east corner 12th and Pine. A leaky gasoline stove was shooting flames and ignited the small wooden building. John ordered men to take a Babcock and an axe over to the east side of the structure while he took the repaired Babcock near the west entrance where the gasoline was burning.
Fireman Tom Dolan was standing about a foot behind John and explained that Captain Sweeney set the extinguisher down and stooped over it, opening the valve with his right hand while reaching to open the door with his left hand. Suddenly the Babcock exploded with a loud clap and a cloud of debris. The bottom section had failed and the cooper extinguisher shot up like a rocket, striking John on the right part of his neck and lower right skull with tremendous force. Dolan heard John groan while he fell back on the pavement with blood streaming from the wounds.
Firemen Dolan, Patrick Shay and Timothy Monahan picked him up and carried him to across the street in front of Merz’s Grocery. Butcher Peter Angler ran to get a physician at an office nearby and returned with Dr. Jordan. The doctor determined Sweeney’s neck had been broken and that his death was nearly instantaneous. Shay’s voice broke up as he reported to the crew “It’s no use boys, the man’s dead now”. The fire was soon controlled, and a patrol wagon was called to take Captain Sweeney’s body to the Dispensary for an official examination. His remains were then taken to Cullen and Kelly Undertakers where he was prepared and placed in a handsome coffin.
On Tuesday March 8, the coffin was moved to his home at 909 Tyler Street for the funeral. A large crowd gathered outside the home to pay respects as relatives filled the interior rooms. Fr. James Bourke conducted the services, and a sorrowful scene occurred as John’s young wife Lydia held 14-month-old daughter Maybelle, while 4-year-old Charles clung to her dress. Fire Chief John F. Lindsay declared with tears in his eyes that “there was no better or more faithful man in the department”. John Sweeney was laid to rest at Calvary Cemetery. Every fire house in the city was draped with black, and all the fire bells tolled in respect to his memory.