The Great Boston Fire

The following is an article from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader

For many cities -San Francisco and Chicago, especially- it took a disaster to finally improve building codes and safety regulations. Boston was no exception.


November 9, 1872, was a quiet Saturday night in Boston's downtown business district.  Everything was closed, and only a handful of people were on the street. Then, at about 7PM, a fire broke out in the Klous Building, at the corner of Summer and Kingston streets. The three businesses housed in the three-story building sold dry goods, neckties, and and hoopskirts, with boxes full of back stock stuffed into every empty room. In effect, the Klous Building was a giant pile of kindling, just waiting for a spark to set it on fire.

And that's what happened. The fire started in the basement, when a spark from the coal-building steam boiler that powered the elevator ignited a box of hoopskirts. The elevator shaft sucked the flames up, fueled by the shaft's wood lining, and they spread quickly to other floors. Five minutes later, the entire building was a raging inferno.


The fire could be seen from blocks away, and a crowd gathered to watch the blaze. After standing around for 15 minutes, many wondered aloud why they couldn't hear a fire alarm. Surely someone had alerted the fire department. No, nobody had, they all assumed someone else had done it. The fire department was finally summoned at 7:25 PM by a policeman half a block away who saw smoke in the air.

By that time, the smoke was already visible five miles away across Boston Harbor in East Boston. Without waiting for an alarm, a pumper engine from the East Boston Fire Department boarded a ferry and was at the fire within minutes. But once the firefighters got there, tragically they couldn't do anything: Their fire hoses weren't compatible with Boston's fire hydrants. All they could do was watch the building burn and the fire spread. The Klous Building was gone by 7:30. Metal shutters had slid down the building in molten streams; shingles and roof tiles had fallen to the ground and struck onlookers.

Though firefighters all over Boston had heard the alarms, they couldn't get to the spreading fire because the horses that pulled their water-pumper engines had been stricken by an epidemic of horse flu. Some engines tried to get to the fire anyway, only to have their sick horses die along the way. The city had the foresight to keep 500 men on call to carry the engines by hand, but by 7:45, only 75 of them had shown up.

Shortly after 8:00 PM, Fire Chief John Damrell knew he'd need more help. He sent telegrams requesting fore engines and firemen to every town within 50 miles. The word spread, and 1,700 firefighters from 27 towns headed for Boston… but most didn't get there until well after 10 PM.


The fire had started to spread to adjacent buildings as early as 7:20, before any firefighters even arrived. Most of the buildings in the district were made of granite, which normally isn't flammable.  But anything -including stone- will burn if it comes into contact with the proper oxidizing agent. The burning materials inside the Klous caused a chemical reaction that created the necessary agents, making the granite burn.

Granite burns hotter and creates a wider perimeter of heat than burning wood. A building across the street from the Klous caught fire without even being touched by flames; the heat from the fire was enough to ignite it. Now buildings on both sides of the narrow street were ablaze. This created a "wind of heat" -a 16-mph backdraft that blew embers and cinders in every direction, igniting even more buildings.

By 8:30 PM, entire blocks were burning. There were 50 engine crews on the ground, but not enough fire hydrants in the business district to beat back the spread of flames. In some cases the nearest hydrant was 700 feet away. By the time the water came out of the hose, there wasn't enough water pressure to fight the fire. Other crews hooked up multiple hoses to a single hydrant. That killed the water pressure. The hot winds were so strong that what little water did come out was reduced to a mist.

The pumps ran on coal, and the fire engines usually carried 500 pounds of it -enough for an hour of firefighting. Ordinarily that would be sufficient, but on this night the engines ran through their coal and then, because the coal carts couldn't replenish the supply fast enough, resorting to using stray boxes, garbage, broken-off fenceboards  even shutters and blinds from nearby buildings- for fuel.  Ironically, there was a large coal yard nearby, but it, too, caught on fire, making its thousands of tons of coal unusable.


At 10 PM, the firemen were still concentrating on  dousing the burning buildings, instead of trying to contain the fire. Fire Chief Damrell finally agreed to Mayor William Gaston's demand to use explosives to blow up houses and buildings in the fire's path. That was how the Great Chicago Fire was finally extinguished- if there is nothing in a fire's way to burn, it will eventually stop.  Would it work in Boston? They decided to find out.  The police department donated kegs of gunpowder, and volunteers and businessmen ignited them.  The explosions eliminated the buildings …but it also ignited gas lines connected to street lamps. For a time, the fire raged hotter than ever, but because there were no buildings left, it could finally be controlled. It was largely extinguished by noon the next day.


The crowd didn't disperse as the fire spread. They actually grew, and not just to watch: They came to loot. By midnight, police had arrested 750 people, some of whom were business owners trying to salvage stock from their own burning stores. By 2 AM, even some of the out-of-town firemen, convinced they had no hope of fighting the blaze, had joined in the looting. And to top it all off, many of the firefighters were drunk. As early as 8:00, police had passed out whiskey in a misguided attempt to keep firefighters awake and alert. One news report told of a drunken firefighter who claimed he saw fireballs falling from the sky, signifying the apocalypse. (It turned out to be the flames reflected on the white feathers of some passing geese.)


In the 17 hours the fire raged:

* Thirty people died, including 12 firefighters.

* Property totaling $75 million was destroyed (worth about 3.5 billion today)

* A total of 776 buildings, tenanted by 960 companies, burned to the ground.

* More than 300 warehouses full of wool, leather, shoes, paper, and hardware were lost.

* Thousands of people were left homeless and jobless.

* The blocks bordered by Washington, Summer, Broad, and State streets were completely destroyed -an area of 65 acres.


Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all: The Boston Fire had been predicted. During the Chicago fire just a year earlier in 1871, more than 300 people had lost their lives and over 300,000 acres of the city had burned down. In the wake of that fire, insurance companies surveyed other large cities to assess their potential future losses. Their conclusion: Boston would be the next to go because it had no enforced building code or fire regulations. Many business owners ignored the report, mistakenly believing that granite was fireproof; some didn't even bother to insure their property. Other businesses understood the message and insured their buildings for up to six times their worth to collect when their businesses were inevitably destroyed. Result: The Boston fire bankrupted 35 insurance companies.

The district was completely rebuilt in less than two years- financed mostly by money from insurance claims. And the fire brought needed changes to the city: Streets were widened to prevent flames from jumping them, a citywide board of fire commissioners was formed, and a uniform building code was passed. As a result, this was the last major fire in Boston -but it wasn't the last in North America. In the next 40 years, Atlanta, Seattle, baltimore, and Toronto would all suffer similar fires. But except for the Chicago fire and the citywide inferno after the san Francisco earthquake of 1906, Boston's fire was the deadliest and most costly.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 19th book in this fan-favorite series contain such gems like The Greatest Plane that Never Was, Forgotten Robot Milestones, Ancient Beauty Secrets, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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