This Day In History: A Huge Fire Destroys Downtown Boston (1872)

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On this date in history in 1872, a catastrophic fire broke out in Boston. The fire was to destroy a large area of the historic city and it led to the death of at least 14 people and the destruction of hundreds of buildings and homes.

The fire began in the basement of a warehouse in the Kingston and Summer Street area. At this time the Boston district where the fire started was a mixed area of small scale businesses and housing. Many of the buildings were tenements where people lived in small and often overcrowded apartments.  Many of the buildings in the city were made of wood and this was to result in what should only have been a minor fire becoming a great conflagration. When the fire broke out, sparks and embers from the blaze were blown by the wind onto the wooden roofs. The wooden roofs caught fire and soon many streets in the area were like an inferno. Because the streets were so narrow the flames from one building could leap across and onto nearby buildings. Within a few hours, the fire was out of control.

1058px-1872_View_of_Hovey's_Store_on_Summer_Street,_by_Edward_F._Smith
Fire damage on Summer Street Boston

The local firefighters could not handle the blaze alone and had to ask for help from firefighting units from elsewhere in New England. Firefighters from all over New England rushed to Boston to fight the unprecedented blaze. However, they were not able to properly fight the fire. This was because they hydrant system did not work as expected and the equipment used by the firefighters were not effective.  Then the hoses did not have the power to direct water on the roofs of the buildings where the fires were often fiercest.  The fire brigade was reliant on horses and because there had been an equine epidemic there were simply not enough horses to pull all the fire tenders. In desperation, the Boston authorities resorted to explosives to dampen the fires. This failed and indeed only made the fires worse and they engulfed more buildings.

It took almost twenty four hours to bring the fire under control. By then it had destroyed much of downtown Boston. The city had to accept that its fire prevention system and fire-fighting units had been pretty much ineffective. This led to real changes in the Boston Fire Department and a new inspection system. The city also tightened its fire laws and regulations.

One good thing came out of the fire, apart from a better fire department and fire prevention system. The destruction of much of downtown Boston allowed the city to develop the area into a new financial district. Within years it became a very important banking and business center in the United States.

 

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