Boston Burnt: The Great Fire of 1872

Great fires plagued America's cities during the 19th century, such as the well-known fire in Chicago in 1871.  Most Bostonians today are not aware that a large swath of Boston's commerical district was destroyed in a single fire just one year after Chicago. The map to the left shows how the fire spread north from Summer Street and raged on for 15 hours destroying 770 mostly commercial buildings in its path.

Boston's Great Fire started in the basement of a 5-story warehouse building at the corner of Kingston Street and Summer Street on Saturday November 9, 1872 just after 7PM.  No one was in the building when the fire began but early witnesses outside the building testisfied that the fire was first spotted in the basement windows. The exact cause of what started the fire was never determined but the common consensus is that coal spark from a steam boiler that powered an elevator in the building may have ignited dry materials stored near the boiler. Whatever started the fire became irrelevent as the blaze quickly spread from building to building, rooftop to rooftop, engulfing entire blocks of buildings that were commonly considered to be fire-proof.


Boston's Chief John Damrell (left) had a technical understanding of buildings which he applied to fire fighting and the establishment of new building codes. (right) Cataract Engine No. 10 near Devonshire Street the day after Boston's Great Fire. Fire departments from as far as Conneticut responded to Boston's call for assistance.


Boston firefighters, led by Fire Chief John Damrell, were challenged by a coincidence of bad circumstances and bad politics:

The Horse Flu: Boston's fire department like any other at the time relied heavily on horses to pull fire engines, hose reels, coal carts, and ladder carts. However most of the horses in the Boston area were stricken by an epizootic flu forcing the fire department to organize teams of men to pull each piece of equipment to a fire. This added delays getting enough equipment to scene of the fire just after it began.

The Water Supply: Boston's fire chief John Damrell had warned the city officials that the water supplies in the commercial district were outdated and inadeqaute, and unfortunately this fire proved him right. In some areas firefighters stood helpless as blocks of buildings burned unable to find a hydrant with adequate water pressure to pump from.

The Buildings: At the time of Boston's Great Fire of 1872 building codes were mostly suggestive and seldom enforced. As a result, Boston's downtown architecture although stately and ornate in appearance, was also mostly a fire hazard. The streets were narrow, the buildings often too tall to reach the upper floors with fire ladders and hoses, and the top floor of each building was often a wooden Mansard roof packed to the rafters with dry materials.


Two scenes of the ruins of downtown Boston at Federal Street (left) and Pearl Street (right). Many of the building were of brick or granite construction which gave many the impression that such structures were fireproof.


The Gunpowder: During the fire a committee of concerned citizens gathered in city hall to lobby Mayor Gaston to permit the use of gunpowder to demolish buildings in the path of the fire. The idea was to form a break in the path of the fire to stop it from spreading further. Fire Chief Damrell at first objected strongly knowing the gunpowder would do more harm then good but eventually under political pressure Damrell relented and issued permits. Several improvised teams of people with no training or prior experience packed buildings with gunpowder kegs and lit a fuse. Soon the explosions were causing injury and flaming debris lighting adjacent buildings, Chief Damrell had to force a stop to the use of gunpowder.

The Crowds: Boston firefighters struggled to do their job amongst streets jammed with spectators, looters, and panicked property owners. Crowds had to kept back from collapsing buildings, explosions, and fire hoses that were easily punctured by cart wheels and granite chucks falling off the cornices of buildings.

After raging for 20 hours the fire was stopped short of Boston's historic landmarks, including the Old South Meeting House, Faneuil Hall, and the Old State House. In the wake of the fire was the smoking rubble of bankrupted merchants, manufacturers, newspapers, and insurance companies. Hundreds were made homeless and thousands jobless. Thirty people had died during the fire itself.

Boston Ruins Panorama
Panorama of Downtown Boston After the Great Fire: This was the view of the fire ruins looking north from the west end of Summer Street. To the far left is Washington Street, the church steeple is Old South Church at the corner of Washington Street and Milk Street. The building under construction in the background was the new Post Office on Milk Street and Devonshire Street. The view to the right is east toward the harbor where several wharves were also detroyed by the fire.

Boston's Great Fire has a lasting legacy in American history through the efforts of Boston's Fire Chief John Damrell. Just after the fire, Damrell organized the National Association of Fire Chiefs, a key organization in establishing universal building safety codes. Damrell also became Boston's inspector of buildings and made sure that building codes were legally enforceable.  

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