The Great Fire of 1872
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.
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
firefighters, led by Fire Chief John Damrell, were challenged by a
coincidence of bad circumstances and bad politics:
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supplies in the commercial district were outdated and inadeqaute,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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.