Little Bits of History

Damrell’s Fire

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 9, 2013
Great Boston Fire of 1872

Great Boston Fire of 1872

November 9, 1872: At 7:20 PM a fire starts in Boston, Massachusetts. Urban fires are very destructive as they move quickly through crowded streets. The Great Boston Fire of 1872 was contained in twelve hours. The Great Fire of London in 1666 took three days to contain. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow probably had nothing to do with Chicago’s Great Fire the year before and it was contained in ≈ 24 hours. For comparison’s sake, the London fire covered 700 acres, the Chicago fire destroyed 2,000 acres, and the Boston fire consumed 65 acres. The London fire left eight dead, Chicago’s fire killed 200-300 people, and in Boston ≈ 30 perished.

The fire in Boston destroyed most of the downtown area. There were 776 buildings destroyed, with much of the financial district turned to ashes. The cost of the fire was $73.5 million or ≈ $1.9 billion in 2009 USD. The fire started in the basement of a warehouse in the commercial district. From 83 / 85 Summer Street it spread through the city. There were a variety of reasons for the rapid spread of the fire.

Fire stations from across New England sent their teams and pumpers to Boston via the trains. There had been a flu epidemic affecting horses across North America. Boston’s pumpers had to be brought to the fires pulled by teams of volunteers since the horses were immobilized. This is said to have slowed response time and given as the main reason the fire was able to spread so far. Building codes were not enforced and wooden French Mansard roofs were common. Embers often landed on these roofs and the buildings were then engulfed in flames. Fire hydrant couplings were not standardized at the time.

John Damrell was Boston’s Fire Chief in 1872. He began volunteering with fire teams in 1846, when he was a teenager. He is credited with bringing a new level of professionalism to fire fighting. By the 1880s he was Boston’s Inspector of Buildings and in that capacity created a set of modern building codes to ensure public safety. His codes were implemented at the national level. Both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald buildings were destroyed in the blaze. Many insurance companies were bankrupted by the claims. Even so, the downtown was rebuilt in two years with the streets widened and the buildings safer.

“When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work.” – Edward F. Croker

“I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“You have to do something in your life that is honorable and not cowardly if you are to live in peace with yourself, and for the firefighter it is fire.” – Larry Brown

“Man is the only creature that dares to light a fire and live with it. The reason? Because he alone has learned to put it out.” – Henry Jackson Vandyke, Jr.

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Other contributing factors to the Great Boston Fire of 1872 were that merchants were not taxed for merchandise stored in attics. As the Mansard roofs caught fire, directly beneath was stored flammable goods such as wool, textiles, and paper goods. Most of Boston was serviced with old water pipes with low pressure capabilities. The number of fire hydrants and cisterns was not adequate for serving the commercial district and as mentioned above, if a fire hydrant was available, the hoses might not connect. The fire alarm boxes were kept locked to avoid false alarms being raised and it took an extra twenty minutes to even sound the first alarm. Looters and bystanders interfered with firefighting efforts. The buildings were higher than the distance the steam engine pumpers could spray water. The streets were lit by gas lights and the gas feeding them could not be properly shut off. And finally, buildings could be insured at full value or even above value making owners less concerned with fire safety; in fact, insurance related arson was common.

Also on this day: Kristallnacht – in 1939, Nazi Germany began the systematic elimination of the Jews.
IE Look Out – In 2004, Firefox 1.0 was released.
Papa Was a Rolling Stone – In 1967, Rolling Stone magazine’s first issue was on the stands.


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