This page contains basic information about the Great Boston Fire of 1872, which occurred on Saturday and Sunday, November 9 & 10, 1872. The fire destroyed 776 buildings across 65 acres of land, with the assessed value of the properties at nearly $13.5 million and personal property loss of of $60 million dollars. The downtown area of Boston had undergone a rapid development in the years after the Civil War, but improvements, especially water mains, had not been upgraded during these years. The fire department at the time was dealing with an epizootic, a disease which affects equine animals, thus affecting the horses that pulled the heavy fire apparatus. The fire spread rapidly, creating its own energy or firestorm, due to the tremendous heat generated. Although many or most buildings were made of brick or stone, the window frames and other fixtures were made of wood, thus allowing the fire to communicate to nearby structures. During the course of the fire, which burned uncontrolled for more than 12 hours, buildings were blown-up using black gun powder in a controversial effort to create a fire break.
The fire started in a building at 83-85 Summer Street, at the corner of Kingston Street, in the downtown area. The first alarm was received at 7:24PM from Box 52 located at Summer and Lincoln Streets. The fire had nearly total possession of the building of origin upon the arrival of the first fire engine, Engine Co. 7 from their quarters at 7 East Street, near South Station. Hose Company 2, from Hudson Street, is credited with getting the first water on the fire. Additional alarms were struck at 7:29, 7:34, 7:45 and 8:00PM. Further alarms were struck for Box 48 and Box 123. Urgent calls for help were sent by telegraph, but help was delayed due to many telegraph offices having closed for the evening. Nearly all the cities and town surrounding Boston sent help. Some cities sent steam engines by railroad, with many coming great distances, including from New Haven, CT. Chief Engineer John Damrell was in command at the fire, but his attention was frequently interrupted by city officials seeking meetings to discuss strategy and the political impact of the fire.
The fire was finally stopped at corner of Washington and Milk Streets through the efforts of the firefighters to save the Old South Meetinghouse, on the opposite corner of Milk Street. The Old South, a fixture since colonial days, was (and remains) an important symbol of Boston's heritage and every effort was made to save it. Most accounts of the fire attribute credit for saving Old South to the Kearsarge Engine 3 of Portsmouth, NH, although that point is still debated. Despite the enormity of the fire, only two Boston fireman were killed, with the total deaths numbering between 13 and 20, depending on the source.
Chief Damrell was heavily criticized and much of the blame for the fire was directed at him, despite his record of having sought improvements in the city's fire safety infastructure. By 1874, he was replaced with a Board of Fire Commissioners. He later served many years as the commissioner of the Boston Building Department.
Much has been written about this fire in books, journals, periodicals, newspapers. Many photographs were taken in the aftermath of the fire, but none exist (to date) of the actual fire. Use the links below to find articles, stories, books, photographs, maps and other publications related to this fire.
GREAT BOSTON FIRE OF 1872
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