Blog: The Great Boston Fire of 1872
By Serghino Rene
In November of 1872, a ravenous and rapid fire destroyed Boston’s business district. It took nearly 12 hours to quench the flames, but by then, the city from Boson Common to the waterfront was unrecognizable. More than 60 acres of downtown was lost, including nearly 800 buildings.
Before the Fire
Boston was incorporated as a city on March 4, 1822. The five decades that followed saw tremendous growth and change, earning its reputation as the “Athens of America.” Architect Charles Bulfinch had much to do with Boston’s transformation. From its simple, puritan beginnings, he changed the city’s façade with European charm, which was inspired by his tour in Europe.
By the 1850s, the exclusive, highly sought after neighborhood he helped develop began turning into a thriving commercial center. The Industrial Revolution in the North was in full swing and Boston eagerly participated in this economic transition. Boston wanted to be a world class city, in the likes of Paris London and Rome, pulling away from its fledgling, colonial port reputation.
Also, a new culture and identity amongst the people was in the making. Boston was becoming a city of Brahmins – a class of wealthy, educated, elite members of Boston society in the nineteenth century. Oliver Wendell Holmes coined the term in a novel in 1861, calling Boston’s elite families “the Brahmin Caste of New England.”
Although this sudden growth was an exciting era, zoning this segment of the city for safety was not a priority. In 1871, a fire devastated the city of Chicago. It left 300 dead, 100,000 homeless and 18,000 buildings in dust. A half century of buildings were gone in a flash. Boston was not immune to this level of this destruction. Just over a year later, a similar tragedy would threaten the beloved city.
Chief Engineer John Stanhope Damrell was Boston’s fire chief at the time. For years, he warned the city aldermen of the potential dangers that awaited Boston if changes weren’t made. After his visit to post-fire Chicago, he warned the Boston City Council of Boston’s vulnerability to a potential fire storm.
“The fire in the city of Chicago is without parallel in the history of the world,” said Damrell. “Their experience has proved that however well-protected a city may be from ordinary fires, large conflagration are possible.”
The city’s leaders did not heed Damrell’s warning. To them, Chicago’s tragedy was due to its faulty structure as a wooden city. Boston’s downtown was mostly made up of brick and granite, so they felt somewhat protected from such a threat.
In addition, requests made by Damrell to improve zoning were ignored. Since 1867, Damrell would plead with city officials to make changes. Nathaniel Bradlee was the head of the water board.
“If the streets were to be piped the size necessary for conflagration it would cost millions of dollars,” said Bradlee. “The city wouldn’t be justified in making such an expenditure.”
Boston was a disaster waiting to happen according to Damrell. He noticed that the streets were too narrow for the bustling commerce that took place. Unlike Europe, the mansard roofs were finished in wood instead of brick. In addition, they were stuffed with flammable components like paper stock, textiles and oils. The underground pipes, originally made for the former residential neighborhood, where inadequate. They were unable to produce streams from hoses powerful enough to reach warehouses.
Other causes included:
- Buildings were often insured at full value or above value. This gave owners no incentive to build fire-safe buildings.
- Fire alarm boxes in Boston were locked to prevent false alarms. Each box was marked with where keys were kept. Policemen also had keys to the box. This would often delay response. In the case of the Great Fire of 1872, this delayed the Boston Fire Department (BFD) 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 were insufficient for a commercial district
- A horse flu epizootic had immobilized BFD horses, so fire equipment had to be pulled by volunteers on foot. .
- Looters and bystanders interfered with firefighting efforts.
- Gas supply lines could not be shut off promptly. Gas lines exploded and fed the flames
At around 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, November 9, in the basement of a commercial warehouse at 83-87 Summer Street, a spark turned into an inferno that engulfed the building. It took 15 minutes for a policeman to hear shouts of “fire” before reaching a nearby alarm box. The firestorm grew fast, going from one mansard roof to another.
At the beginning of the firestorm, Damrell telegraphed for reinforcements from other parts of New England from Maine to Connecticut. Over 50 engines came to the aid of the BPD.
Twelve hours later, the firestorm was defeated. As many as 20 people died.
City officials criticized Damrell’s firefighting tactics, many of which are still in use today, over the course of several hearings. Ironically, the city adopted every recommendation Damrell made for improving fire codes. They included standards for more central fire houses, larger underground pipers, more hydrants and bigger fire engines.
Although devastating, the fire helped fuel Boston’s growth. The business community saw a greater opportunity to expand its presence downtown. There was an abundance of financial capital in the city, so the burnt district was rebuilt in just under two years. The city’s financial district, as we know it today, was established, becoming a bustling business center for the remainder of the 19th century, into the 20th century.
- Boston Fire Historical Society: http://bostonfirehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/51/2016/02/bfd1872greatfirestereoviews.pdf
- Photo A – Lithograph of Great Fire of 1872, courtesy of the Boston Fire Historical Society
- Photo B – Map of 1842 Boston, courtesy of Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.
- My Photos Attached
- Photo 1 – Historical plaque at origin of fire
- Photo 2 – Present day Summer Street, looking towards Downtown Crossing. This neighborhood was residential until the late 1850s.
Photo 3 – Present day Franklin Street. Before the commercialization of the neighborhood, it was the location of one of Charles Bulfinch’s duplex townhouses. Before the fire, the townhouses were replaced with a warehouse for importer William H. Horton & Company.