Over the years, November has been a particularly deadly and destructive month in Boston, due to a handful of the worst fires in the city's history. Most remembered is the deadly fire at the Coconut Grove nightclub in late-November of 1942 that claimed the lives of nearly 500 people. But the others have been largely forgotten, including one in 1872 that still stands today as one of the most devastating fires in American history.
Almost 150 years later, we still don’t really know how this story begins. We do know how it ends.
"If you had been in downtown Boston November 10th or 11th of 1872 you would have looked out on a sea of absolute destruction," said Stephanie Schorow, author of Boston on Fire. " Today we would’ve looked at it and thought an atomic bomb went off. Boston was entirely in ruins."
But it wasn’t a bomb, atomic or otherwise, that reduced 65 acres – from Downtown Crossing to the wharf, Post Office Square to the Leather District – to smoldering rubble. As best as we can tell, it was simply a spark, deep in the basement of a building at the corner of Kingston and Summer Streets.
"There weren’t a lot of people living in that area but there were a lot of stores, but mostly retail and a lot of warehouses and that’s part of what caused the fire to spread is you had warehouses that were chock full of merchandise for the Christmas holiday," said Schorow.
It was a Saturday evening, and nearly everyone had closed up shop. By the time the fire was even noticed, it was already out of control, fueled in large part by the mansard roofs so popular in the neighborhood at the time.
"This fire spread from roof to roof. It was jumping streets and it was igniting roofs. This fire got so hot it created its own hurricane if you will, it created its own wind," said Schorrow.
We don’t know what was going through then city fire chief John Damrell’s mind as he ran to the blaze from his home in Beacon Hill, but he knew – better than anyone - just much trouble the city was in.
"He’d been warning of this fire. He was so worried that he had been asking for more money and equipment. Boston City council told him to ‘not magnify the wants of his department so much,'” Schorow explained.
The water supply on the ground was woefully inadequate to fight a fire burning this hot, this high up. And so Boston burned – for 12 full hours.
Schorow described the chaos: "The granite buildings got so hot that they exploded; chunks of granite and stone were raining down on the firefighters; there was a gas explosion, there was looting; the streets were thronged with people, people came to watch."
Engines and firemen poured in from throughout the region, by horse and by rail, as exhausting battles raged on multiple fronts for hours on end.
"It was eventually put out and there are a lot of stories of individual bravery and achievement," said Schorow. They included an epic stand along Washington Street where the building were covered roof to ground in wet blankets and carpets that kept the fire from reaching Beacon Hill, and a battle to save the Old South Meeting House where firefighters and citizens actually climbed up on the roof and were putting out sparks.
All told, 11 firefighter and as many as 30 citizens lost their lives. Nearly 800 buildings were destroyed. But all wasn’t lost. The tragedy lit a fire under Chief John Damrell.
"He realized that if you wanted to keep your cities from burning down you had to build them so that they wouldn’t burn down, explained Bruce Twickler, the filmmaker behind the documentary Damrell’s Fire.
Despite taking the brunt of the blame from city leaders, and losing his job, Twickler says Damrell remained undeterred in his efforts to ensure that Boston – in fact no city – would ever see the likes of that day again.
"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," said Twickler.
Damrell remained a deeply influential figure on the national scene for years to come. And Twickler says that by the turn of the 20th century, fire safety in America had been completely transformed , thanks in large part to John Damrell.
"Would’ve it happened without him? Yeah it probably would have, but not in as direct and effective and as organized a way," he said.
The Great Boston Fire of 1872 reduced downtown to ash and ignited John Damrell’s crusade to keep America’s cities from burning, 143 years ago this month.