The Great Boston Fire of 1872 was Boston's largest urban fire and still one of the most costly fire related property losses in American history. The conflagration began at 7:20PM on November 9, 1872 in the basement of a commercial warehouse at 83 - 87 Summer Street in Boston, Massachusetts. The fire was finally contained 12 hours later after it had consumed about 65 acres (263,000 m²) of Boston's downtown, 776 buildings, much of the financial district and caused $73.5 million in damage. At least 20 people are known to have died in the fire.
Many factors contributed to Boston's Great Fire:
- Boston's building regulations were not enforced. There was no authority to stop faulty construction practices.
- Buildings were often insured at full value or above value. Over-insurance meant owners had no incentive to build fire safe buildings. Insurance related arson was common.
- Flamable wooden French Mansard roofs were common on most buildings. The fire was able to spread quickly from roof to roof and flames even leapt across the narrow streets onto other buildings. Flying embers and cinders started fires on even more roofs.
- Merchants were not taxed for inventory in their attics therefore offering incentive to stuff their wood attics with flamable goods such as wool, textiles, and paper stocks.
- Most of downtown had old water pipes with low water pressure.
- Fire hydrant couplings were not standardized
- Too few fire hydrants and cisterns for a commercial district
- A horse flu epidemic that spread across North America that year had immobilized Boston's fire department horses. As a result all of the fire equipment had to be pulled to the fire by teams of volunteers on foot. This is often attributed as the leading cause of this fire growing out of control but the city commission investigating the fire found that fire crews response times were delayed by only a matter of minutes.
- Looters and bystanders interfered with fire fighting efforts
- Steam engine pumpers were not able to draw enough water to reach the wooden roofs of tall downtown buildings.
- Buildings in the path of the fire were demolished with gunpowder. Instead of forming a fire break the expoding building only spread the fire further.
- Gas supply lines connected to street lamps and used for lighting in buildings could not be shut off prompty. Gas lines exploded and fed the flames.
Notable events of the fire:
- Oliver Wendell Holmes watched the fire from his home on Beacon Hill.
- Alexander Graham Bell wrote his own eye witness account of the fire in a letter to the Boston Globe newpaper. Unimpressed by Bell's prose the paper did not publish his letter.
- The Great Chicago Fire occurred just 1 year ealier, October 1871.
- A committee of concerned citizens and property owners was deputized to demolish buildings in the path of the fire with gunpowder kegs. The explosions did more harm than good by most accounts.
- The glow in the sky over the fire was noted in ships logs off the coast of Maine.
- Fire departments from every state in New England arrived on trains carrying pumpers, fire fighters, more spectators.
- Looters had to be chased out of burning buildings.
- Old South Meetinghouse on Washington Street, the church in which the Boston Tea Revolt was organized, was rescued from the fire by a citizens brigade of wet blankets.
- Some well known businesses in Boston today had their buildings burn in the fire including the Boston Globe newspaper, the Boston Herald newspaper, and the Shreve, Crump & Low jewelery store.
The fire rendered thousands of Bostonians jobless and homeless. Hundreds of businesses were destroyed and dozens of insurance companies were bankrupted. Even still the burnt district was quickly rebuilt in just under two years, mostly because Boston's commercial property owners had the excess capital to do so.
City planning during the post fire reconstruction caused several streets in downtown Boston to be widened, particularly Congress Street, Federal Street, Purchase Street, Hawley Street, and reserved the space for Post Office Square. Most of the rubble and ruins of the buildings destroyed by the fire was dumped in the harbor to fill in Atlantic Avenue.
Boston's Fire Chief John Damrell was credited for stopping the fire despite the circumstances. Damrell later used his celebrity to lobby for the adoption of a unified national building code.