75th Anniversary of Fire Chief Joseph W. Morgan’s Heroic Death: Only St. Louis Fire Chief to be killed in front-line duty

Joseph W. Morgan was the first and only St. Louis Fire Chief to be killed in the front-line performance of duty.  There were major headlines in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dated March 21, 1943, St. Louis Globe-Democrat dated March 21, 1943, and the St. Louis Star-Times dated March 20, 1943.  The coverage of his 1943 death and funeral were of regal stature.

Chief Morgan’s sudden death occurred on March 20, 1943, when a 5-story building of Goodwill Industries at 713 Howard Street collapsed.  Concerned for the safety of his men, he climbed the fire escape to warn them to get out of the building. The brick wall collapsed and he fell 20 feet to his death. The St. Louis Star-Times article dated March 22, 1943, reported:  

“The memory of such a man should long be honored in the community, not only out of gratitude but as an inspiration to others. And in the case of Chief Morgan, an especially fitting memorial suggests itself at once.”

Chief Morgan joined the St. Louis Fire Department in 1913.  In 1917 he left the department and entered the Army to serve as Chief Fire Inspector at Camp Funston, Kansas.  Chief Morgan rejoined the department after World War I and in 1921 was promoted to Lieutenant and assigned to Engine Company No. 41 at Eleventh and Lucas Avenue. Two years later he was promoted to Captain and commanded an engine company at Twelfth and Spruce.  The pinnacle of his career was achieved when he was appointed Chief by Mayor Becker in August 1941.

His accomplishments laid the groundwork for many practices of the fire department today.  It is difficult to briefly summarize his work, but listed below are several of his most worthy endeavors.

  • Abolishment of the “general alarm” system and inauguration of the modern and current       “5-Alarm” system.
  • Studied firefighting methods in Chicago and Detroit and upon his return from these cities, was made captain-instructor of the Firemen’s Training School.  He was instrumental in developing much of the organizational and procedural framework that is still utilized to this day.
  • After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was chosen by the Office of Civilian Defense to train volunteer firefighters and rescue workers.
  • His proudest achievement was the Firemen’s Pension. He testified before a House committee in Jefferson City to speak on behalf of House Bill 219 designed to increase the pensions of firemen upon their death while in the line of duty. Although the bill passed, Chief Morgan did not benefit from it.  His widow and three children received $35/month compared to a $50/month benefit he would have received as a retiree.

Fire Chief Morgan has a significant lineage of firefighting in his family. His father was a Lieutenant for the St. Louis Fire Department and both his sons, Joseph and William went on to be Fire Chiefs in Clayton and Olivette, respectively.

More information referencing the Chief’s dedication to the City of St. Louis can be found at www.firechiefmorgan.org


Dan Morgan:  phone: 314/808-7444:  e-mail: ddmn07@yahoo.com  

Beth Morgan Shapard:  phone: 314/705-2271: e-mail: shapardb@gmail.com