The Great Boston Fire of 1872: How a Horse Flu, Drunkards, and Bad Roofs Led to Disaster

One year after the Great Chicago fire, the Great Boston Fire in 1872 burnt over 700 buildings and 65 acres of downtown Boston to the ground. Here's some background on the blaze and some interesting points on how the city was not prepared.

How Did It Start?

MassMoments has a great summary of how the fire began:

Around 7:00 pm on November 9, 1872, a spark of undetermined origin ignited highly flammable material in the basement of a wholesale dry goods store at the corner of Kingston and Summer Streets. When flames reached the wooden elevator shaft, they quickly rushed up through floors crammed with flammable rolls of cloth, hosiery, gloves, laces, and hoop skirts and set the building's wooden roof ablaze.
 
Curious spectators assumed that someone else had alerted the fire department; they watched the blaze for 20 crucial minutes before an alarm was sounded. Two engines responded and immediately gave a second and third alarm. By 7:45, every fire company in the city had been called; they all arrived pulling their engines by hand. But it was too late.
 
The flames leapt from one wooden roof to another in the crowded commercial district. Within minutes whole blocks were consumed by fire. Roaring like a blast furnace, it seemed to take on a life of its own. Intense heat created howling updrafts; wind and fire forced the firemen back. The weak streams of water that the firefighters valiantly pumped into the inferno did little to stop its progress. Broken gas lamps flared like rockets, explosions blew off manhole covers. Late into the night, the city glowed as bright as day.
 
The desperate fight was soon complicated by mobs of frenzied businessmen trying to salvage their wares and ledgers, looters eager to grab what they could, and hordes of curious onlookers. Since the fire was not threatening residential areas, many Bostonians viewed the blaze as an awesome spectacle. Gawkers — by some counts as many as 100,000, many of them drunk — added to the firefighters' struggle.
 

This great map from Damrell's Fire shows how fast and far the fire spread:

The Challenges the Firefighters Faced

Besides the slow alarm call and all the pedistrians getting in the way, the firefigthers were hampered by other factors also. Darmell's Fire does a great job of outlining these issues. Here's two that are pretty stunning:

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 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.
 
 

How Boston Was Not Prepared

 
  • Boston’s building regulations were not enforced. There was no authority to stop faulty construction practices.
  • Buildings were often insured at full value or above value. Over-insurance meant owners had no incentive to build fire-safe buildings. Insurance-related arson was common.
  • Flammable wooden French Mansard roofs were common on most buildings. The fire was able to spread quickly from roof to roof, and flames even leapt across the narrow streets onto other buildings. Flying embers and cinders started fires on even more roofs.
  • Fire alarm boxes in Boston were locked to prevent false alarms, therefore delaying the Boston Fire Department by twenty minutes.
  • Merchants were not taxed for inventory in their attics, therefore offering incentive to stuff their wood attics with flammable goods such as wool, textiles, and paper stocks.
  • Fire hydrant couplings were not standardized.
  • The number of fire hydrants and cisterns was insufficient for a commercial district.
  • Steam engine pumpers were not able to draw enough water to reach the wooden roofs of tall downtown buildings.
  • Gas supply lines connected to street lamps and used for lighting in buildings could not be shut off promptly. Gas lines exploded and fed the flames.

The Damage

The fire raged for 12 hours burning through 65 acres of downtown containing 776 buildings. 30 people died including 18 firefighters. Both The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald buildings were destroyed. I wonder how the story was reported. 
 
This set of photos on Flickr from the Boston Public Library takes a look at all the damage done. This is where the other pictures above came from also.
 

 

The Aftermath

Wikipedia sums up the aftermath of the fire:

The fire rendered thousands of Bostonians jobless and homeless. Hundreds of businesses were destroyed, and dozens of insurance companies were bankrupted. However, the burnt district was quickly rebuilt in just under two years, mostly from the private capital of Boston's commercial property owners.
 
City planning during the post-fire reconstruction caused several streets in downtown Boston to be widened, particularly Congress Street, Federal Street, Purchase Street, and Hawley Street, and reserved the space for Post Office Square. Most of the rubble and ruins of the buildings destroyed by the fire was dumped in the harbor to fill in Atlantic Avenue.

 

A PBS Special

PBS did a one hour documentary on the fire focusing on the Boston Fire Department Chief. It is named "Darmell's Fire". Here is a previe of the special.

A Good Book

"Image of America" has a book on the fire that is loaded with pictures and lots of details on the history. You can get it below on Amazon.

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