The Great Boston Fire - November 9-10 1872


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016
“O vision of that sleepless night,
What hue shall paint the mocking light.
That burned and stained the orient skies,

Where peaceful morning loves to rise.”
“After the Fire”
Oliver Wendall Holmes, Sr. {*}


The Great Boston Fire
November 9-10, 1872
(Public Domain)

On Saturday November 9, 1872 at 7:00 p.m., a fire begins in the basement of a commercial building at 83-85 Summer Street downtown Boston. At 7:24 p.m. an alarm comes into the fire department from Box 52 located near the scene of the fire. By 8:00 p.m. all of Boston’s twenty-one companies are on the site as the fire is quickly spreading. On this night the fire is not all that they are fighting for they have one major problem in their midst that is hampering their work.

“The Great Epizootic”

It was first reported in Ontario, Canada during the month of September 1872. The symptoms were coughing, feverish, sneezing and wheezing. It appeared to be some common type of influenza and it would soon cross the border and hit the United States. This influenza had a mortality rate 2-10% from those infected, however it made its victims extremely sick. The New York Times noted on October 30, 1872 it had infected as many as 12,000 victims. And just who were the victims? Horses; AND in 1872 what was essential to firefighters in fighting fires? Horses.

Therefore as the Boston fire trucks arrived on the scene some were pulled by men instead of horses. As it was in the Great Chicago Fire thirteen months earlier low water pressure made it impossible to get the water to the higher floors of the building. As the fire glowed during the night business owners ran into the area trying to protect their buildings. Unfortunately not all were there for legitimate reasons. The fire brought out looters who took to the streets for ill-gotten gains and eventually roadways became clogged with residents that came to “see the show”.


(Public Domain)

"As if the sun had lost his way
And dawned to make a second day,--
Above how red with fiery glow,

How dark to those it woke below!” {*}

Throughout the night telegraph lines were buzzing as requests went out for help. Steam engines were sent by railroad from all over New England some as far away as New Haven, Connecticut. A steam engine from Portsmouth, New Hampshire gets the credit for saving the historic Old South Meeting House. that gave birth to the “Boston Tea Party” almost one hundred years earlier.

“The cloud still hovers overhead,
And still the midnight sky is red;
As the lost wanderer strays alone

To seek the place he called his own,” {*}

November 10, 1873 - the fire is finally stopped at the corner of Washington and Milk Streets as firefighters sought to save the historic fixtures of Boston. It raged through the city for twelve hours. Two Boston firefighters were killed (*some sources put the number at eleven firefighters) and civilian deaths were estimated between thirteen - twenty individuals. The monetary damage was put at $73.5 million (over $1.5 billion in today's dollars). When the devastation was evaluated the fire had consumed approximately sixty-five acres of Boston spreading from the commercial district, to Washington Street to Boston Harbor. Harper’s Weekly published a map detailing the areas damaged in their November 30, 1872 edition.


(Public Domain)

And Someone Gets the Blame

John S. Damrell was the son and nephew of firefighters from the Boston area. On the evening of November 9 he was the Boston Fire Chief and in command of the fire from when he left his home on Beacon Hill on that Saturday evening to travel to the commercial district and the disaster that was unfolding. Chief Damrell had traveled to Chicago a year prior to see the damage their fire had done and realized that Boston was in a similar position and vulnerable. When he returned to Boston he began a crusade to alert officials that changes must be made to prevent the devastation caused to Chicago. In the month before the fire when Damrell saw the effects of the horse influenza he had a contingency plan and hired 500 men to be on the ready to pull the fire engines should they be needed. It has been estimated that the lack of horses only delayed the arrival time of the fire fighting equipment response by only a few minutes. {7}

"He’d been warning of this fire. He was so worried that he had been asking for more money and equipment, and was told by the Boston City Council, ‘not to magnify the wants of his department so much’.” {6}


(Public Domain)
During the night of the fire, Damrell was constantly interrupted by city officials demanding a meeting to detail his strategy of controlling and combating the fire. In the end Damrell lost his job but despite all of the blame from the city leaders he spent the rest of his life determined to make Boston and all cities safer from fires such as burned in Chicago and his hometown. It was said of him:

"He organized the fire chiefs. He was the first president of the national association of fire chiefs. He became the building inspector for the city of Boston; he wrote what is arguably the first building code.” {6}

John Darnell, in an address given to the Boston Veteran Fireman’s Association, recalled his memory of that day:​

"The conflict raged for fifteen hours with an unrelenting fury and was the most terrific engagement by the fire department for superiority over the fire fiend ever recorded in the annals of the city.” {1}

Within a year after the fire, the United States was plunged into a financial crisis and when the lists of reasons are given - The Great Boston Fire (coupled with the Great Chicago Fire) is included on the list for the demands it put on the government’s fiscal policy. The Panic of 1873 awaited President Grant’s attention shortly after he began his second term.

Illustration of Before & After


(Public Domain)

"Our northern queen in glory shone
With new-born splendors not her own,
And stood, transfigured in our eyes,

A victim decked for sacrifice!" {*}

{*} Poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894) - wrote the poem as he watched the Great Boston Fire from his windows.