This page tells the tragic story of the Merrimac Street Fire, which occurred in the early morning hours of February 5, 1898. Before the fire was extinguished, six Boston firemen would lose their lives in a collapse of the interior floors, injuring many firemen as well. On this cold and snow-covered night, a District Chief and five members of the same fire company would be lost.
The five firemen from the same company lost at this fire remains the greatest loss of life by a single fire company at the same fire in the history of the Boston Fire Department.
The fire took place in the George Bent Bedding Company building at 116-126 Merrimac Street, opposite Lancaster Street, in the North Station & Haymarket sections of downtown Boston. The building was owned by the Union Baptist Church. A fire alarm was received at 3:58AM from Box 412, located at Causeway and Lowell Streets, a short distance away. Upon arrival of the first fire companies, smoke and fire were showing from the five-story building, which measured 125 feet wide and 75 feet deep. The building contained a large quantity of bedding materials, fabrics, cotton, wood, and other materials which tended to absorb water and added to the weight on the upper floors of the building. Upon his arrival at the fire, Assistant Chief William Cheswell ordered a second alarm. He ordered hose lines to be advanced via interior staircases and from the outside over ground ladders. A third alarm was ordered by Chief Cheswell at 4:16AM.
Responding on the Second Alarm was District Chief John Egan of District 3, along with Engine and Ladder Companies, including Engine 7. Upon arrival, Engine 7 was ordered to advance a line to the fourth floor. Chief Egan assumed command of the interior firefighting on the fourth floor. Among the responding Engine Companies on the Third Alarm was Engine 39. Upon arrival, Engine 39 was ordered to advance a line over Ladder 8 to the fourth floor. At approximately 5:15AM, with the fire nearly under control, the roof collapsed into the fifth floor, and all lower floors collapsed as well. Rescue operations commenced immediately, but were hampered in the darkness by heavy burning timbers, snow and building contents. Many department members were trapped in the rubble.
Fire Commissioner Henry S. Russell was notified and he ordered heavy equipment and manpower to the scene to aid in the rescue and recovery operations. The first fireman to be found was Hoseman Edward Shea of Engine 7, located at 6:22AM. Minutes later, Captain Joseph Garrity, Engine 7, was found. Both men were alive. Shortly after 7AM, Hoseman Thomas Conroy and Hoseman Philip Doherty, both from Engine 7, were found alive. The injured firemen were taken to Massachusetts General Hospital. Lieutenant John McCarthy, of Protective Company 2, was also injured in the collapse. Still missing were Chief Egan and all the members of Engine 39 who were inside the building.
Hours later, at about 10AM, Chief Egan was found, followed shortly thereafter by Captain James Victory of Engine 38/39 (Engine 38/39 was a double-engine company unit). Both men were alive. About ten minutes later, Hoseman Patrick Disken and Hoseman John Mulhern were found. Both had expired before having been found. Finally, at approximately 11:45AM, the remaining missing firemen, Lieutenant George Gottwald and Hoseman William Welch, were found, both having expired. Lieutenant Gottwald suffocated in a large quantity of bedding feathers. All the members from Engine 38/39 who were operating in the building had perished.
Controversy over the cause of the collapse ensued immediately after the fire was extinguished. Fire Chief Lewis P. Webber could not understand how the collapse could occur, given the low level of fire load that actually took place on the upper floors. The superintendent of the Protective Department considered it a dangerous building. Building Commissioner John S. Damrell (Fire Chief at the time of the 1872 Great Boston Fire) reported that although there had been a fire in the building years before, repairs had been made.
The following is a brief biography of each deceased department member and details on the funerals held for each.
District Chief John F. Egan was born on April 21, 1849. He was employed as a roofer before being appointed to the Department on February 3, 1876, and was assigned to Ladder 1 (Downtown). He was promoted to Lieutenant on April 18, 1882, remaining assigned to Ladder 1. He was promoted to Captain one year later, on July 10,1883, and again remained at Ladder 1. He was promoted to District Chief and assigned to District 1 (East Boston). He later transferred to District 3 (Downtown) and had his quarters at Fort Hill Square (Downtown).
In the over twenty years he served in the Department, Chief Egan had developed a reputation as one of it’s most daring members. He was injured many times and had several narrow escapes. The Lincoln Street Fire of 1893 and the Masonic Building Fire of 1895 were several of his most memorable experiences.
There were no funeral services on February 8th at Chief Egan’s home, at 45 Decatur Street, East Boston. At 10AM the funeral procession traveled to the Church of the Holy Redeemer. The procession was under the command of District Chief John F. Ryan. Included in the procession was Chief Egan’s wagon, pulled by his horse, Grover, and upon the seat was Chief Egan’s battered helmet. At the church, before a large congregation, including over 200 Knights of Columbus, of which Chief Egan was member, a Requiem Mass was held. At the conclusion of the services, a procession took Chief Egan’s remains to Holy Cross Cemetery for internment.
Captain James H. Victory was born August 1, 1853. He was employed in the grocery business before he was appointed to the Boston Fire Department on July 31, 1880, as a Call-Man in Ladder Co. 12 (Roxbury). He was made a permanent member of the department on April 3, 1884, assigned to Engine 22 (South End). He was promoted to Lieutenant on May 18, 1891, assigned to Engine 6 (West End). On February 10, 1893 he was transferred to Engine 26 (Downtown). On December 22, 1893 he was promoted to Captain and transferred to the double-engine company Engine 38/39 (South Boston).
The funeral was held on February 8th, at his residence, 27 Pearl Street, Dorchester, followed by a 9:00 Requiem Mass at St. Margaret’s Church, Boston & Harvest Streets, Dorchester. Following the funeral, the procession proceeded northbound on Boston Street toward Andrew Square. As the procession passed by the firehouse of Engine 43 and Ladder 20, both companies were drawn up outside the station. The procession continued onto South Station, where it met a train bound for Abington, Mass. Upon arrival in Abington, the cortege traveled to St. Patrick’s Cemetery, where internment of Captain Victory’s remains was completed.
Lieutenant George J. Gottwald was born June 25, 1866. He was employed as a clerk before he was appointed to the Department on May 24, 1889 and assigned to Engine 31 (Fireboat) in the North End. On September 16, 1890 he was transferred to Engine 15 (South Boston). On August 28, 1896 he was promoted to Lieutenant and assigned to the double-engine company Engine 38/39 (South Boston).
The funeral was held on February 8th, at his residence, 8 Orchard Place (present-day St. Margaret St.), Dorchester, followed by a 10:30 Requiem Mass at St. Margaret’s Church, Boston & Harvest Streets, Dorchester. The proceedings were very similar to those of Captain Victory earlier in the day. At the conclusion of services, the funeral cortege, accompanied by a detail, proceeded to Mt. Calvary Cemetery where internment of Lieutenant Gottwald’s remains was completed.
Hoseman Patrick H. Disken was born on March 17, 1858. He was employed as a teamster before being appointed to the Department on October 16, 1886 and assigned to Engine 15 (South Boston). He transferred to Engine 8 (North End) on March 11, 1888, and on May 31, 1889 he transferred to Engine 3 (South End). He transferred to Engine 7 (Downtown) on December 19, 1890 and to Engine 27 (Charlestown) on October 6, 1895. His last transfer was on July 28, 1896 when he was assigned to the double-engine company Engine 38/39 (South Boston).
The funeral for Hoseman Disken was held on February 8th at his home at 443 Main Street, Charlestown, followed by a Requiem Mass at St. Francis de Sales Church, Bunker Hill Street, Charlestown. At the conclusion of the services, the funeral cortege, accompanied by a detail, headed by District Chief C.H.W. Pope, proceeded to Malden, were internment of Hoseman Disken’s remains at Holy Cross Cemetery was completed.
Hoseman John J. Mulhern was born on December 25, 1867. He was employed as a carpenter before he was appointed to the Department on October 14, 1892. He was assigned to the double-engine company Engine 38/39 (South Boston), where he remained since appointment.
The funeral for Hoseman Mulhern was held on February 8th from his residence on Canterbury Street, Roslindale. A Requiem Mass was held at Sacred Heart Church, Brown Avenue, Roslindale. Burial took place at Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Roslindale.
Hoseman William J. Welch was born on November 19, 1870. He was employed as a blacksmith before being appointed to the Department on June 20, 1894. He was assigned to Engine 43 (South Boston). On September 4, 1896 he was transferred to to the double-engine company Engine 38/39 (South Boston).
The funeral for Hoseman Welch was held at his residence, 106 Broadway, South Boston, followed by a Requiem Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Broadway, South Boston. At the conclusion of the services, a procession, under the command of Lieutenant S.J. Ryder, Engine 15, proceeded to Holyhood Cemetery, Brookline, where internment of Hoseman Welch’s remains was completed.
Running Card for Box 412, Causeway and Lowell Streets.
|Engines 4, 6, 8, 10||Ladders 1, 8, 14*||Chemical Engine 1|
|Engines 7, 25, 35, 27||Combination Ladder 8**||Water Tower 1|
|Engines 9, 33, 26, 39||Ladder 17||Chemical Engine 2, Water Tower 2|
|* Ladder 14 was then quartered in downtown Boston. In 1916 it was reorganized in Brighton.
** Combination Ladder 8 was designated Ladder 24 in 1905.
On February 9th, in the aftermath of the fire, Captain Joseph Garrity, Engine 7, recovering from injuries received at the fire, was recommended for promotion to District Chief. He took Chief Egan’s assignment as chief of District 3, and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1910.
The Gottwald family has continued to serve in the Boston Fire Department in the years since the fire. In 1970, Lieutenant George J. Gottwald, Rescue-Pumper Unit, died in the Line-Of-Duty at Box 2124, 3 alarms, at 2235 Washington Street, Roxbury. Two members of the Gottwald family are currently serving in the firefighting force of the Boston Fire Department.
This fire story used the following as sources of information: “BFD Journal – The Merrimac Street Fire”, by William Noonan; The Fireman’s Standard, February 16, 1898; The Boston Public Library; assorted articles from Boston newspapers.
A special thank you to Mr. Hugh Somers, great-grandson of Lieutenant Gottwald, for providing the fine collage photograph of the six deceased department members.
Merrimac Street Fire of 1898
BFD Journal – The Merrimac Street Fire, by William Noonan
Newspaper Story – Six Heroic Firemen Killed, The Firemen’s Standard, February 16, 1898
Newspaper Story of the Merrimac Street Fire
Newspaper Story – Chief Egan’s Horse, “Grover”, February, 1898