Even today visitors to Boston can feel the waft of the city’s once evident superiority complex. In the 1870s it still had justification.
The cradle of revolution and great trading center of New England, Boston’s tradition of Yankee thrift had created the habits of wealth and self-improvement. Every Bostonian knew God was on their side. Shipping crammed the harbor and warehouses overflowed with goods in and goods out.
By 1872, Boston had grown sloppy in guarding its assets. Building regulations were ignored and the practice of over-insurance was a better incentive to arson than to precaution. Only when the fire had started in the business district did everyone remember that fire alarm boxes were locked to prevent hoax calls, that hydrant fittings were not standardized, and that plans to increase the number of hydrants, and the water pressure available, had been shelved as ‘extravagant’. Boston’s fire chief had conscientiously visited Chicago to learn from its experience the year before – and been comfortably ignored on his return.
Few fires in history have been so well fuelled. Wool, textiles, paper and a thousand other flammables turned a warehouse accident into a firestorm that ripped through 65 acres in 15 hours, razing downtown and the financial district, and sending ships at anchor to a Viking funeral. Up to 100,000 people crowded to watch businessmen panicking, fighting off looters, and blocking fire teams – who had rushed to the city from all over Massachusetts – from saving anything at all. Exploding gas lines fed the heat until granite itself melted; the radiant glow was noted in ships’ logs from far up the coast of Maine.
Boston’s fire remains one of America’s most expensive. It caused some $75 million of damage and hit Yankee pride where it hurts most – in the pocket.
When was the Great Boston Fire: November 9-10 1872
Where was the Great Boston Fire: 83-87 Summer Street, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
What was the Great Boston Fire death toll: 30 dead, including 12 firefighters. Despite his foresight and actual courage, the fire chief was made the scapegoat and lost his job.
You should know: Fire crews spotted two men stranded on a high ledge, waving. Understanding the men’s fear of the nearby flames, they pointed their hoses up and drenched them; the two men appeared to shout encouragement, before sitting down calmly. When it was safe to rescue them, firemen discovered the men were dead. The water intended to save them had frozen them to death.