Memoirs of Boston's Great Fire of 1872

 The Great Fire of Boston

A 28 page handwritten journal account

by General William L. Burt, Post Master of Boston

original document resides at the Boston Historical Society

            The wind was south and south west but the fire advanced in the opposite direction, but here it was kept under control and made during the night but little progress. It caught in the Mansard roofs to the windward rapidly crossing the street, and in no instance from the time the fire began until it was extinguished were the firemen able to throw a stream into Mansard stores sufficiently even to check the flames.


            Before nine o’clock, I had made a circuit around the fire twice watching its progress carefully, and looking for some point where a stand could be made against it.  Before ten o’clock it was obvious that with all the steam fire engines in world the fire was beyond control simply from the fact that the building were of so great height, and the fire was extending through the upper stories from block to block beyond the reach of the engines. At twelve o’clock I became satisfied that the fire would reach Washington St and the new Post Office building. There was no pint beyond Winthrop Sq and the foot of Franklin St where it could be controlled if it once passed there. I went to the Custom House to have it opened to transfer the Post Office there, and gave orders to have all mail matters and valuables, except those within safes, packed ready for removal. I had sent to the railroad stations to stop all mails there, and sent the mail messenger’s wagon to the office to assist in transferring the mails to the Custom House.  I found from the janitor of the Sub Treasury rooms that the Assistant Treasurer was not in Boston, and no one was there to take charge of the property in this extremity. Knowing the large amount of government property in this building, I took control of it, closing the doors of the outer entrance, and placing my clerks as guards at the doors. I then at half past twelve went to the City Hall. It was not lit up. I went in at the door from Court Sq and found the policeman alone, who has charge during the night, and asked for the mayor, the chief of police, and the chief of the fire department.


            He said that the mayor had not been there, that the chief of police had been and that the chief of the fire department was out to the fire. I asked him to light up City Hall, the alderman’s room and the major’s room, and ask all the aldermen, and citizens who came to remain, and to send for the mayor. He told me I could find the clerk of the police at the 2nd Police Station immediately adjoining City Hall. I went there and made the same inquiries, and urged that some of the city officials should be sent for immediately. The clerk said he would telegraph for the mayor if I insisted on it, stating to me where he was.


            I told him the city would be another Chicago before Sunday, if something was not done to control the fire. I then went back and went down to the fire again, going to the head of Franklin St, whence to Devonshire, Tremont, Congress, Pearl, and round to High St.


            The prospect was even more disheartening than before. Long stretches of streets were on fire where there was not a fire engine or hose to check the flames. I hurried back to City Hall stopping at my office to see that the work of packing was prospering there, and on arriving at the Hall found it still dark. I met there two or three men on the same mission, Dr Ainsworth and Mr Nichols. I asked the policeman why he had not lit up the Hall.  He said he did not feel he ought to with out some more authority.


            He said none of the men I had inquired for had been there, but as soon as they came he would inform them of what I said. I again urged him to light up the Hall, the alderman’s room and the mayor’s room, and told him I would be responsible for it being done, if any complaint was made of it. I then went to the 2nd Police Station again and found they were arresting and bringing in parties for carrying off from the fire small packages of goods, and urged them to open the gates to the Common, and direct the police, instead of making the arrests, to turn the goods that were being carried promiscuously through the streets into a place where they could be safe, and to devote themselves to that.


            The clerk of the chief was still there. No message had been received from any one and it seemed as if the fire was extending it self beyond human control, even if all the assistance that had been sent for should arrive. I then started with Mr Nichols saying I should return immediately and went to the fire on Devonshire St.


            Finding how rapid progress it was making I went to the Post Office (and) ordered them to commence moving the mails to the Custom House, placing different departments in charge of different men, and told them I should be back every few minutes as the fire seemed to be coming toward us and we must remove. I gave strict orders that no one should be permitted to enter the Sub Treasury rooms except the Treasury officials, none of whom had yet come.


            I went to City Hall again and it was still not lit up. Large numbers of people were waiting around, and anxious inquiries were made, some gentlemen having remained there from the time I was there first. I went back to the Post Office and returned to the City hall directly, it then being nearly two o’clock, Mr Nichols (was) with me.


            I saw a light in the mayor’s room as I came in at the rear door, the policeman said, who has charge, “that the mayor and Capt Damrell have come and are upstairs.  I went up(,) came into the room, and found some ten or twelve people there.


            Mr Bradley a reporter of the Herald, whom I had met each time at the Police Station and at the Hall came in also. Mr Allen the president of the Cochichuate Water Board, four of the Board of Alderman and other gentlemen who I do not now recollect were there. As I came in the mayor addressed me, saying, “I am here, what do you want,” I said “Mr mayor this city is burning up, the fire is beyond control, something must be done to stop it. It needs organization instantly. He said Capt Damrell was then there having just come in.


            I told him it was impossible for one man to take charge of such a conflagration, that it is sweeping from Summer St, through and would cover the whole territory from State St to Washington St and down to Fort Hill before morning, that the firemen were driven back, and they were not able to reach or control the buildings on fire with any success.


            The mayor says what would you advise? I would advise blowing the buildings up and doing it thoroughly.  He said Capt Damrell’s judgment was against it, the experience of Chicago was against it.


            I told him that as it happened I was in custody as representing the United states government of an immense amount of property and we should not hold Boston innocent if she failed to make every effort whether successful or not, to slay the flames, that I could not remove the Sub Treasury, that the Post Office I had already commenced removing, and the fire must be stopped between Devonshire St and the old Post Office between the new Post Office on Devonshire St and the new Post Office. He asked if I was willing to take responsibility. I told him I was if he would give me the authority. Capt Damrell said he had commenced the use of powder without any success. He spoke of using it at the Mercantile Building on Summer and I urged that, that be blown up immediately. The fire had not then reached that.


            The mayor suggested the great danger of life from the use of powder at such a conflagration. I told him it was a mistake. There would be more lives lost in the report tomorrow of those who fought the fire by water than those who fought the fire by powder if they did their duty efficiently. Capt Damrell said, “If it is determined to blow up, I have powder enough at….” I think he said Central Wharf, and it is being brought up and delivered as fast as wanted. I said then “if that’s so”, let’s blow up the block between Devonshire St and Federal St back to the new Post Office, and then from Old South Church to the fire proof building of the Simmon’s trustees and the new Post Office building. We can make a banner that will stop the fire running up Devonshire St to Chauncy St. The mayor asked me if I was ready to take charge of this.  I told him yes, but it would require some six or seven men to act in different localities, that a man should be designated for each street and give authority to have the fire men blow immediately; and wherever the gun powder was used, as the fire would be increased unless it was done. I told him I would not assume any responsibility to blow up the city unless it was given in writing.

The mayor said he could not give the authority, that it must be given by Capt Damrell to make it legal. He then asked Capt Damrell to sit down at his desk, and write the authority which he did. I then asked the mayor if he approved of it, and he said he did. I then asked Mr Bradley the reporter of the Herald to take down the names of gentlemen who should be designated at the different points to take charge, and that each of them should have the authority given them to act under me.   The first gentleman that I named was Mr Allen the chairman of the Water Board, then two of the four aldermen, one of them volunteering. I then asked the Chief of Police to furnish two policemen to go with each of these men and keep the streets clear, and see that their orders were obeyed. It was agreed that I should be found at Devonshire St, and Federal and at the old Post Office on that line, and operations should be commenced between Devonshire St and Federal St. I suggested the mayor to direct the gates of the Common to be opened, and that the Police should keep the streets clear of goods and obstructions, and that the goods in the neighborhood of Fort Hill should not be kept in streets, but the Police should be directed to remove them entirely back upon the vacant ground at Fort Hill.  Mr Allen was stationed on Broad St to blow up the buildings there and prevent the fire passing around the Fort Hill territory. He was the first man dispatched.


            Capt Damrell saying that the powder should be furnished as rapidly as could be used, I then asked the mayor to call out one or two regiments of militia, and send it to Gen. Cunningham and do it through him instantly, and have them out before morning, and to suggest to him it was better to call a regiment from outside the city, as our own men could not probably be reached on account of the fire.  I then asked the mayor to join with me in sending to Com. Parrot’s for marines to guard the government property, and for powder from the navy, and Mr Nichols was sent on that mission.  It was then agreed that Capt Damrell should take charge in person from Franklin St round to Broad St in such form as he saw fit beginning at Franklin St.


            The different gentlemen who had been authorized to act, were placed in different streets round to Broad St, each street being designated for them.  Devonshire and Federal being reserved for myself, and I was to be found there from that time until Capt Damrell gave us further orders. We went to this work. I leaving City Hall last, with two policemen with me, and going directly in front of the fire on Devonshire. Before we got there it had crossed from the central/control building to the Franklin St block between Federal and Devonshire. I directed the street to be cleared immediately, and the powder to be brought up and be placed in the block between Federal and Devonshire using it from the fronts. The first powder came in seven kegs, this being entirely insufficient to blow off more than one roof of the buildings and entirely insufficient to blow up more houses as those were. No further powder could be obtained from any quarters until nearly four o’clock in the morning, why this was I don’t know – but it was obvious that no powder should have been used, unless we had sufficient to use it thoroughly. Soon loads of powder from the Navy Yard and from the Chelsea began to report, and we commenced using it at different points of the circuit of the fire which was then very extended and had reached so far to the east that there was no hope of controlling it towards the Fort Hill district.  I still however adhered to the line of operations that I stated at the City Hall to make the fight on Washington St to the Old South then to the new Post Office down to the Old, and have all understand at no risks were we to fall back beyond those lines. Orders were given if fire reached Washington St. to use no powder beyond until further consultation at the City Hall. The first powder that was of any effect was that obtained from the Navy Yard in one hundred pound kegs and the only reason this was not more efficient was the fear of using insufficient quantities.


            The fire advanced steadily against the wind. The streets on all sides were clear of smoke and cinders up to the very burning buildings – the wind swept towards the fire with great strength.  As we came to the corner of Devonshire and Water, it was evident that the building adjoining the New Post Office on the east, on the same block would carry the fire though into the Simmons block, unless they were destroyed. Four or five buildings were blown up in this vicinity and the building on the corner of Water and Devonshire St been blown up with six hundred pounds of powder instead of what was used, the Simmon’s block would have been saved, and the fire could have been stopped there. The fire came through the rear of Lindall St burning down the block, also to Liberty Sq and coming up Kilby St. At the corner of Kilby Street towards State one building was blown up, and there the firemen from the nature of the building – and more that any other reason secured a foothold eventually controlled the fire.


            The Merchants Insurance Building in which the Sub Treasury vaults and the Post Office were situated and from which none of the Government Property was removed, all of the safes of the Post Office being left there, being no time or means to remove them was called fire proof with a substantial metallic roof raised on trusses and two stories being built on brick arches.


            It was in this building that the fire was finally stopped although this was no wise due to the construction of the building itself. The fire came in at the iron doors of the rear burning through under the roof, a large portion of which is still standing, and swept through the Sub Treasury through rooms formerly occupied as a hotel, and at this time crowded with furniture and valuables, taken upon storage, swept up under the dome, reached through to the rooms near the stairway at the front of the building. In this building the firemen fought with tremendous energy. Although of broke out their hose(?), supposing the building had been abandoned at my own personal solicitation, it was replaced by them, and finally Capt Damrell himself about 10 o’clock in the morning appeared at the Congress St entrance alone. I assisted him through the window, and took him and showed him the condition of the fire. Alderman Wooley chairman of the fire department a committee of which he was one of, also came in upon the other side of the building and he directed them to bring back the hose that had been taken out. I remained in the building from the time it took fire until it was under control and no complaint can certainly be made of any amount efficiency and daring of the Fire Department there. They obeyed orders, and assumed risks of life and limb that were only justified by the immense amount of valuable property exposed to destruction.  When the fire was stopped at the dome of the Sub Treasury Room as the iron girders that supported it had been melted, inverted itself and came down through the floor.


            The Sub Treasury vault contained upward of thirteen million dollars stood often to the sky- covered debris of thousands if mail bags and pouches that had been stored in the rooms above and these filled with water had protected the vaults from the heat, the walls, five stories high with the iron roof still extending across them, running back to Lindall St while in front the doors, desks and railing of the Sub Treasury rooms were actually preserved though badly burned when the fire stopped. Powder was placed in the block on Kilby St extending from Lindall St to State St on the westly side, in every building except the freestone building of Hide and Leather Insurance Co. This was with the view of raising these building if it should become necessary to stop the fire from reaching State St. The firemen at this point worked bravely three or four buildings in advance of where the powder was placed, keeping the fire under control and finally subduing it, being assured that the powder should not be exploded until it was necessary and all the men were withdrawn. I did not observe a single instance where the firemen fell back to a point where they were any less efficient, owing to the use of powder, although at first they were entirely inexperienced and calculated its effects were much greater that they really are. There was as much and probably more real daring after four o’clock and until the close of the fire, from 8 o’clock in the evening until 4 o’clock in the morning.


            The great difficulty in the whole matter of the use of powder was thus, it was not used in sufficient quantities, and was not used thoroughly. For the information of cities like New York which are exposed today precisely as we were and when a fire once commenced can’t be no more controlled that ours could be, I think I can say without hesitation, you have got to blow your building up, not using less than 500 and probably eight hundred pounds in each warehouse. The blowing out of windows in no instance extended the flames here.  It furnished the means of access readily with the water. If we could have raised the water to the height of the buildings, I suggested at the City hall, and seems now to me after that night experience that a half a dozen of those warehouses should have had the Mansard roofs blown off taking one hundred and fifty pounds of powder to the attic and blowing them successively one after the other, bringing the firemen instantly to the ground to control with their water the buildings thus opened. Another thing that was obvious through all the fire, from Winthrop Sq to the new Post Office we were constantly short of water, the streams could hardly be raised to the third story of ordinary stores, some of them were less than this. The out of town firemen all refused to enter buildings on this line, and in reply to my request invariably assured that those were their instructions, this is probably a wise precaution but our own firemen should have trained men who following the powder could use the water efficiently on the buildings thus opened to them.  In this connection I would say it is not necessary to open all the packages, kegs, or canisters, but using the fuse in one, and securing anything that could be obtained to throw over the packages, especially timber to press them down from above, or even the weight of boxes being of great value, the fuse will by the explosion of a single keg or canister instantly communicate with all the rest, moreover, while it is exceedingly powerful and therefore dangerous, is it not the most dangerous instrument with which to combat fire, that night and its experience proved this: and if the firemen could understand that a efficient corps of engineers were at hand to use the powder it would be the right hand of strength to the fire departments of our large cities. The Mansard roofs did not cause the destruction that we had, because they were Mansard roofs, but because they were constructed of wood and timber. The form of the roof in no wise increased the risk and had they been, even one or two in a block, fire proof, it would have stopped the conflagration. It is obvious that in the increase in size and height of our buildings we have not increased proportionly in the mechanicle means of controlling conflagrations in them. Hand engines a few years ago could control fire in the ordinary buildings of our cities. The same fire engines came into use, and they controlled the buildings of increased height and size without difficulty but we have now gone one step beyond, and steam fire engines and all modern appliances for extinguishing fires are entirely useless when it rages through warehouses five stories or more extending in blocks from two hundred to three hundred feet in depth. What measures can be found that shall increase the efficiency of steam fire engines and enable to control such buildings as these is a problem that must now be solved, or we must construct every building fire proof.  One suggestion it is evident in one case would have been efficient assistance. Had there been iron pipes running upon the inside of these huge buildings to the very roof and open all times and extending to the hydrants at the corners of our streets, so that there the hydrants could be coupled on to this pipe or steam fire engines connected with it and thereby throw a stream directly into the attic of the building itself without the further intervention of men or hose it have been invaluable.


            The value of discipline among the men themselves was never more clearly shown that at this fire. The steamer from the Watertown Arsenal under the direction of Capt Green with his men were conspicuous along the line of our retreat from Franklin St through Devonshire to State St. His men were under military discipline, and obeyed their orders without reference to danger or hardship entering buildings and carrying their hose in some instances into the fire and remaining at their post until ordered to move, and all under the control of one organizing mind and presented a power that was conspicuous through the night.


            To those outside, who suppose that the organization for work at the mayor’s room that night at two o’clock was itself disorganization, or lack of system, I would say that so far from that being the truth, that every man who was placed in position that night was either a well known city official or government official having proper control and custody of property, and one who would be recognized in this extended field of labor by the people as holding authority.  What ever was done after we left the Hall to change the position of affairs, I do not know, but as it stated should be done. I reported to the City Hall and received messages from the City hall constantly from that time until our authority ceased.


            During this time feeling that the conflagration might still extend beyond the State House or Washington St. I had sent for four tons of powder sending men that I knew. And when I received word from City Hall that the authority to blow up buildings was terminated, and that Capt Damrell alone would take charge of it, I had nearly two tons of powder in North Market St, a ton and a half in Dock Sq and near Kilby St a ton more - a portion of this placed in the buildings all of which was removed and returned without injury to any one.


            The first lot of powder that came to the fire came in charge of an officer from the navy Yard on Devonshire St, and he reported to me hesitated that the driver would not take the powder further. Examining with him the coverings to that it was secure, I left the team by the fire engines up to the head of the street, he carrying the flag on the load and in every instance after we had commenced using the powder, and the firemen saw it was not reckless, it gave them more instead of less confidence in themselves and the power to control the fire. It is sufficient justification of the authority that was entrusted to myself and several gentlemen who operated between the fire and State St and up to Broad St that in all the perils of the night, with the fire extending in every direction, and with so much powder being to a certain degree exposed, into the city and in to the very heart of the fire there was not a pound exploded except when and where it was intended and no person was injured in any form from its use. There is no criticism intended upon any person connected with the city.  In the whole affair anxiety to get them together at the City Hall was for the purpose of securing organization and understanding and volunteering aid which must be had. At such a time as this it needed a sort of head quarters for the fight, and these head quarters must necessarily be at the City Hall.  It is no one’s fault that they did not realize the danger or extent of it, or conceive the means of controlling such an immense conflagration as this and the reason I had more anxiety was from the fact of the immense responsibility that seemed thrown upon me on behalf of the government.


            I think none would have justified ourselves in Boston had we allowed the government property here, including the Sub Treasury, to have been destroyed without testing it to the fullest the use of powder in staying the fire. With this view I went to the City Hall. Whether this saved us or not is now to us of little consequence, but those who are exposed to similar risks, and to ourselves in the future, it is important that we should know or understand that gun powder or nitroglycerine can be used, and used efficiently in staying the fire if it is used in sufficient quantities with a decided hand. I have no doubt we could have controlled this conflagration absolutely in a circuit not outside of Winthrop Sq and Franklin St losing a portion of High St and going round to the N & E depot, if we should have ventured upon this remedy and had the material sufficient at hand to effectively blown up the buildings. In our direction, in the progress of the fire, some fourteen buildings were blown up of this nature, but few effectually not one the conflagration with the quantity of powder that should have been used. The danger from the explosion is comparatively nothing and as the powder is not confined the quantity must be increased sufficiently to secure the destruction of the buildings.


            Finding the fire was so extensive and feeling that advantage would be taken of it by sensational dispatches sent early Sunday morning over the wires, I went to the Central Telegraph office adjoining the Post Office and requested them not to permit under the circumstances such dispatches but delay them until after we could have the truth sent, this I thought very important for the government as the financial effect of the Chicago fire was fresh in my mind.


            As soon as the Sub Treasury was saved and before the fire was extinguished I went myself to the Providence depot, and there communicated with the Secretary of the Treasury giving him a statement of the condition of things and the same to Post Master General.


            Our mails were removed without the loss of a letter or newspaper and stored in the Customs House. I applied to the city for the use of Faneuil Hall before the fire stopped burning, and Sunday morning commenced moving to Faneuil Hall. Sunday night I advertised in the newspaper that the office would be opened as usual at Faneuil Hall at 10 o’clock. This would have been accomplished and every thing as we had planned in the morning after but for the fact that the gas was cut off at one o’clock in the morning on account of the second fire and we were obliged to lay in darkness with over one hundred men until daylight losing nearly seven hours.  The clerks employed in the Post Office all of them kept at Faneuil Hall had their meals there and sleeping on the floor.  We remained there in this form until Thursday night and are now in shape to do the work of the office.


            The government sent a special messenger from Washington from the Post Office Department, and we have received aid from Philadelphia, New York, Hartford and various other offices, besides great assistance from the special agents who were located here, after Monday morning every mail was made regularly by carriers and every collection from the street boxes and since Tuesday morning the mails have arrived and departed with their usual regularity.




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