In 1871, a Boston fire department engineer name John Damrell traveled to Chicago to examine the smoking ruins of the Great Chicago Fire. He realized the probability of a catastrophic Boston fire. In a little over a year, his fears were realized.
For months before the fire he worried about Boston’s susceptibility to a catastrophe. He did manage to persuade the city to invest in the first fireboat and to let him inspect buildings. But there was little he could do about the many new buildings that crowded Boston’s narrow, crooked streets. Nor was there much he could do about building owners who over-insured their buildings, which gave them little incentive to make them safe from fire.
Damrell worried especially about the city’s leaky old water mains, which couldn’t create enough water pressure to reach the tops of the new buildings.
The Great Boston Fire
In October 1872, an outbreak of distemper sidelined many of the Boston Fire Department’s trained fire horses. So the ever-vigilant Damrell hired 500 extra men to pull fire trucks to fires. Later, a city investigation of the fire found the lack of horses only delayed the firefighters’ response by a few minutes.
The fire started around 7 pm on November 9 in the basement of a dry goods store at the corner of Kingston and Summer streets. Flames raced through the wooden elevator shaft and spread to cloth, hoop skirts, hosiery and gloves before setting the roof on fire. Onlookers stood watching for 20 minutes before the alarm sounded. Fire alarm boxes had been locked to prevent false alarms.
Every Boston fire company arrived at the scene by 7:45 pm, but flames fully engulfed the building. Firefighters could do little to contain it because of the weak water pressure.
The fire raged through the commercial district gobbling blocks at a time. The fire consumed the Boston Globe building, the Herald, Shreve, Crump and Low and the Carter’s Ink Co.
Wind and updrafts spread the flames even faster. Gas lines exploded, streetlights popped and the city glowed like an ember. Sailors could see the fire from the coast of Maine.
Drunks and Looters
As many as 100,000 spectators, some drunk, came to watch the spectacle as the fire didn’t spread to the residential districts. Businessmen interfered with the firefighters as they tried to salvage their goods, even as looters were stealing them. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., watched the fire from Beacon Hill and wrote a poem about it. Alexander Graham Bell submitted an eyewitness account to the Boston Globe, but the editors rejected him.
For 17 long hours, firefighters from 27 towns pumped weak streams of water on the fire. Some came from as far away as Providence and New Haven. But because the fire broke out on Saturday, many telegraph offices had closed and it took longer to summon help.
Civilians tried to stop the spread of fire by blowing up buildings with gunpowder, which did more harm than good.
Efforts to save the Old South Meeting House finally put out the fire. Some credit the timely arrival of a Kearsarge Steam Fire Engine from Portsmouth, N.H., with saving the landmark.
In the end, at least 30 people died, including 12 firefighters. The Great Boston Fire consumed 65 acres and cost over $1 billion in today’s dollars. The city used the rubble from the fire to build Atlantic Avenue.
Because most businesses had plenty of insurance they rebuilt quickly. Some of the city’s architectural gems, like Trinity Church, grew from the ashes of the Great Boston Fire of 1872. So did a lookout tower and headquarters for the Boston Fire Department, now the Pine Street Inn.
John Damrell came under heavy criticism for the fire, despite his efforts to prevent it. He lost his job in 1874 and went on to campaign successfully for a national building code.
This story about the Great Boston Fire of 1872 updated in 2023.