Boston Fire Department engineer John Damrell was worried about fire danger in the months before the Great Boston Fire of 1872.
He was an innovator innovator who persuaded the city to invest in the first fireboat and to let him inspect buildings. But he worried that Boston was susceptible to a catastrophic fire with its narrow, crooked streets increasingly crowded with new buildings. He didn’t think Boston’s leaky old water mains could create enough water pressure to reach the tops of new buildings.
He even went to Chicago in 1871 to learn the lessons of the Great Chicago Fire.
An outbreak of distemper sidelined many of the Boston Fire Department’s trained fire horses. Damrell hired 500 extra men to pull fire trucks to fires.
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 was at the scene by 7:45 pm, but the building was fully engulfed and they could do little to contain the fire because of the weak water pressure.
The fire raged through the commercial district gobbling blocks at a time. The Boston Globe building was lost. So was the Herald, Shreve, Crump and Low and the Carter’s Ink Co. Firefighters were helpless as wind and updrafts that spread the flames even faster. Gas lines weren’t shut off quickly enough so manholes exploded and streetlights popped and the city glowed like an ember. Sailors could see the fire from the coast of Maine.
As many as 100,000 spectators, some drunk, came to watch the spectacle as the residential districts were unaffected. 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 and eyewitness account to the Boston Globe but was rejected.
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. Help was delayed, though, because the fire started on a Saturday and telegraph offices were closed.
An attempt was made to stop the fire by blowing up buildings with gunpowder, which did more harm than good.
The fire was finally stopped by a citizens’ brigade with wet blankets and the Kearsarge Steam Engine from Portsmouth, N.H., who managed to save Old South Meeting House.
In the end, at least 30 people died, including 12 firefighters. The fire consumed 65 acres and cost over $1 billion in today’s dollars. The rubble it produced was used to build Atlantic Avenue. Most businesses had insurance – too mucn insurance, in fact -- and rebuilt quickly, and according to new building codes. Some of the city’s architectural gems, like Trinity Church, grew from the ashes of the Great Boston Fire of 1872.
John Damrell lost his job in 1874 and went on to campaign for a national building code.