The Great Fire of Boston 1872

Facsimilie of a lithograph, by Louis Aubrun, from ca. 1873 showing the damage to Franklin St. after the Great Boston Fire of 1872.

It took just 15 hours to devastate the city of Boston in 1872. Ravaged by the worst fire in its history, over 770 buildings were engulfed by flames

During the early 1870’s there was no legal requirement for architects and builders in Boston USA to adhere to building codes. Codes and minimum building standards were available but they were suggestions and rarely enforced.

Like the Fire of London 206 years before, the Great Fire of Boston was to prove difficult to fight as the ornate buildings were several stories high and the streets were narrow. This made it almost impossible for the fire fighters to combat the blaze efficiently from ladders that were too short to reach the upper stories of the buildings.

The devastation caused by the fire was exasperated by a series of events, which on their own would have been difficult to overcome, but together these events made the effects of the fire much worse.

Fire Breaks Out in Boston

The exact cause of the fire is unknown. However, it is known that the fire started just after 7pm on Saturday November 9 1872 in the basement of a five-story building which was being used as a warehouse. The structure was imposing and had a commanding position, standing on the corner of Kingston Street and Summer Street.

Very quickly the fire engulfed the five-story building and it wasn’t long before it had started to spread along the roof to the adjoining buildings.

Fire Chief, Jim Damrell

The man in charge of fighting the fire was fire chief, Jim Damrell. At the time motorised fire engines were a long way off and the fire fighters were reliant on horse-drawn fire vendors.

Many of the horses belonging to the Boston Fire Department were suffering from a type of epizootic flu. So extensive was the outbreak of the virus across North America that it became known as the ‘Great Epizootic of 1872’. (An epizootic virus is one that can cross the species barrier, e.g. equine flu mutating to affect humans or other species).

As the horses were too ill to be drafted into service, Damrell had no choice but to bring in groups of men to drag the vendors laden down with water hose reels and ladders.

Damrell’s Career as a Fire Fighter

Damrell had started his fire fighting career ‘on the bottom rung’ having joined as a volunteer fire fighter. He worked his way through the ranks and was appointed fire chief in 1866. Having learnt the skills of fire fighting the hard way, Damrell was now in a position to try and modernise the way in which fires were tackled across the city.

Among the advances he made in fire fighting practices, Damrell ensured the first fire boat was installed in Boston and that building inspections were introduced. Jim Damrell was an innovative man. Following the devastating fire in Chicago the previous year, he travelled to the city to learn about the experiences of the fire fighting crews tackling a major blaze first hand. Learning from Chicrgo’s mistakes and successes he was in a better position than many people on the scene that night to fight the fire as effectively as possible.

The Boston City Fire Takes Hold

Surprisingly spectators stood and watched the warehouse burning for around 20 minutes before someone finally raised the fire brigade. The progress of the fire was helped by the presence of gas escaping from broken lamps. And as the fire spread across the city people hurried back to their homes and place of business in an attempt to rescue what they could before it was engulfed by the flames.

At the height of the fire almost 1700 fire fighters had been drafted in from 27 towns, some as far away as New Haven and Providence. By now the fire was out of control. The Mayor and the Post Master General badgered Damrell until he agreed to take drastic action. They urged him to create a fire break by blowing up buildings in the path of the fire. Damrell’s men were exhausted. The water pressure was too low to douse the flames and as a result he had no choice but to agree to the pressure he was being put under.

In spite of the danger and Damrell’s reservations, the creation of the firebreak eventually paid off and the fire was put out.

The fire claimed the lives of 12 fire fighters and 18 civilians. Approximately 800 buildings were destroyed, primarily in the city’s commercial and warehouse district leaving the local economy in ruins.

With many disasters, society looks for someone to be held accountable. In spite of his foresight and bravery on the night, Jim Damrell was held responsible for the death and destruction caused by the fire and in 1874 he lost his position as Boston’s Fire Chief.