Memoirs of Boston's Great Fire of 1872


Account of the Great Boston Fire
by Oliver Wendell Holmes
in a letter to John Lothrop Motley

  from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Life and Letters by John T. Morse Jr.,

Houghton Mifflin,1896. 



Letter to Motley from Volume II, pp. 195-199



November 16, 1872, Saturday  

I wrote to you on Michaelmas day, as an Englishman would reckon, September 29th, a couple sheets of the usual personalities and trivialities, I suppose, for I hardly know what was in them.  Now I feel as if I had something to write about, and yet I really believe I have very little to tell you in addition to what you must have learned through many channels before this letter reaches you.

The recollection of the Great Fire will always be associated with a kindly thought of yourself in my memory.  For on Saturday, the 9th November, your sister, Mrs. S. Rodman, sent me a package of little Dutch story-books, which you had been so good as to procure for me.  You have no idea with what a child-like, or if you will childish, interest I looked at those little story-books.  I was sitting in my library, my wife opposite, somewhere near nice o’clock, perhaps, when I heard the fire-bells and left the Dutch picture-books, which I was very busy with (trying to make out the stories with the aid of the pictures, which was often quite easy), and went to the north window.  Nothing there.  We see a good many fires in the northern hemisphere, which our windows command, and always look, when we hear an alarm, towards Charlestown, East Cambridge, Cambridge, and the towns beyond.  Seeing nothing in that direction I went to the windows on Beacon Street, and looking out saw a column of light which I thought came from the neighborhood of the corner of Boylston and Tremont streets, where stands one of the finest edifices in Boston, the “Hotel Boylston,” put up by Charles Francis Adams.  The fire looked so formidable, I went out thinking I would go to Commonwealth Avenue and get a clear view of it.  As I went in that direction I soon found that I was approaching a great conflagration.  There was no getting very near the fire; but that night and the next morning I saw it dissolve the great high buildings, which seemed to melt away in it.  My son Wendell made a remark which I found quite true, that great walls would tumble and yet one would hear no crash, -- they came down as if they had fallen on a vast featherbed.  Perhaps, as he thought, the air was too full of noises, for us to note what would in itself have been a startling crash.   I hovered around the Safety Vaults in State Street, where I had a good deal of destructible property of my own and others, but no one was allowed to enter them.  So I saw (on Saturday morning) the fire eating its way straight toward my deposits, and millions of others with them, and thought how I should like it to have them wiped out with that red flame that was coming along clearing everything before it.  But I knew all was doing that could be done, and so I took it quietly enough, and managed to sleep both Saturday and Sunday night tolerably well, though I got up every now and then to see how far and how fast the flames were spreading northward.  Before Sunday night, however, they were tolerably well in hand, so far as I could learn, and on Monday all the world within reach was looking at the wilderness of ruins.  Today, Saturday, I went with my wife to the upper storey of Hovey’s store on Summer Street, a great establishment,  ---Gearge Gardner, you remember, owns the building, --which was almost miraculously saved.  The scene from the upper windows was wonderful to behold.  Right opposite, Trinity Church, its tower standing, its wall partly fallen, more imposing as a ruin than it ever was in its best estate, --everything flat to the water, so that we saw the ships in the harbor as we should have done from the same point in the days of Blackstone (if there had been ships then and no trees in the way), here and there a tall chimney, -- two or three brick piers for safes, one with a safe standing on it as calm as if nothing had happened, --piles of smoking masonry, the burnt stump of a flagstaff in Franklin Street, --groups of people looking to see where their stores were, or hunting for their safes, or round a fire-engine which was playing one the ruins that covered a safe, to cool them, so it could be gotten out, --cordons military and of the police keeping off the crowds of people who have flocked in from all over the country, etc., etc.

Any reporter for a penny paper could tell you the story, I have no doubt, a great deal better than I can.  You will have it in every form, ---official, picturesque, sensational, photographic; we have had great pictorial representations of it in the illustrated papers for two or three days.

I hope you and your friends lose nothing of importance…. But everybody seems to bear up cheerfully and hopefully against the disaster, and the only thought seems to be how best and soonest to repair damages.

Things are going on now pretty regularly.  Froude is here, lecturing; I went to hear him Thursday, and was interested.  He referred to “your great historian, Motley,” in the course of his lecture.  After the lecture we had a very pleasant meeting at the Historical Society at Mr. J. A. Lowell’s, where Froude was present.  Winthrop read a long and really interesting account of the fires which had happened in Boston since its settlement, beginning with Cotton Mather’s account of different ones, and coming down to the “Great Fire” of 1760.  Much of what he read I find in Drake’s History of Boston, from which also I learn that the “Great Fire” began in the house of Mrs. Mary Jackson and Son at the sign of the Brazen Head in Cornhill, and that all the buildings on Colonel Wendell’s wharf were burned.  My mother used to tell me that her grandfather (Col.W.) lost forty buildings in that fire, which always made me feel grand, as being the descendant of one that hath had losses, --in fact makes me feel a little grand now, in telling you of it.  Mostly people’s grandfathers in Boston, to say nothing of their great-grandfathers, got their living working in shirt sleeves, but when a man’s g.g. lost forty buildings, it is almost up to your sixteen quarterings that you knew so much about in your Austrian experience….



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