Here to return to
GREAT FIRES IN BOSTON.
A CHAPTER upon the great fires which find a place in the historical records of Boston cannot be better introduced than by giving an extract from an address given by the Hon. Robert C. Winthrop at an evening gathering of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Nov. 14, 1872, held in honor of Mr. Froude, the distinguished English historian: —
“Gentlemen of the Massachusetts Historical Society, —
“I must beg your attention for a few moments. I have promised our distinguished guest, that, after the fatigue of the interesting lecture which he has just delivered at the Tremont Temple, he shall not be involved in any ceremonious utterances again to-night. But as we desire that our meeting shall be a matter of record, and that his name may be entered among those present, if not as taking part in its proceedings, I am sure he will pardon me, and you will all pardon me, for an informal word or two before we relapse into a mere social party.
“Let me say at the outset, that the arrangements for this occasion were made before the occurrence of the awful calamity which we all so deeply deplore, and from which so many of us are more or less sufferers in common with our fellow-citizens. And our guest was himself the first to suggest, that, in presence of such an event, all engagements of this sort might well be cancelled: but on consultation with our worthy host, Mr. Lowell, I found that he saw no reason why a stated meeting of our old Historical Society should not proceed according to the programme, under his hospitable roof; more especially as, at this moment, we have no sufficient roof of our own for the purpose. Our meeting will at least furnish evidence, that, while we heartily unite with all around us in lamenting the terrible disaster which has befallen our beloved city, we all have the fullest faith and confidence, that, at no very distant day, it will be ours to witness and to record the reconstruction of all which has been destroyed, the recovery of all which has been lost, the building-up again of all these waste places and of the fortunes of those who have occupied them, and the complete restoration of Boston to its long-accustomed prosperity.
“We may well draw consolation and confidence from the records of the past; and I venture so far to presume upon your indulgence, and upon the official relation which I bear to the society, as to turn back the pages of history for a few moments, and to remind you how often our fathers suffered in the same way before us, and how bravely and triumphantly they met such calamities.
“I doubt not that there are many of those present who remember having read a discourse delivered by Cotton Mather at what was called ‘the Boston Lecture,’ on the seventh day of February, 1698, and which is included in the first volume of his ‘Magnalia.’ After alluding to the wonderful growth of our town, until it had become known as ‘the metropolis of the whole English America,’ he proceeds to say, ‘Little was this expected by them that first settled the town, when for a while Boston was proverbially called “Lost-Town” for the mean and sad circumstances of it;’ and then, after depicting the dangers of famine and the ravages of the small-pox, from which it had repeatedly and severely suffered, he goes on as follows:—
“Never was any town under the cope of heaven more liable to be laid in ashes, either through the carelessness or the wickedness of them that sleep in it. That such a combustible heap of contiguous houses yet stands, it may be called a standing miracle. It is not because the watchman keeps the city (perhaps there may be too much cause of reflection in that thing, and of inspection too): no, it is from thy watchful protection, O thou Keeper of Boston! who neither slumbers nor sleeps. ... TEN TIMES,’ he continues, ‘has the fire made notable ruins among us, and our good servant been almost our master; but the ruins have mostly and quickly been rebuilt. I suppose that many more than a thousand houses are now to be seen on this little piece of ground, all filled with the undeserved favors of God.’
“This was in the year 1698, when Boston had but seven thousand inhabitants, and when one thousand houses were as many as Cotton Mather dared positively to count on our whole peninsula. Ten times, it seems, the town had already been devastated by fires. You may find an account of almost all of them in Mr. Drake’s elaborate History of Boston.
“One of them, in 1654, was long known as ‘the great fire;‘ but neither its locality nor extent can now be identified. Another of them occurred in November, 1676, which was called ‘the greatest fire that had ever happened in Boston.’ It alarmed the whole country as well as the town, and burned to the ground forty-six dwelling-houses, besides other buildings, together, it is said, ‘with a meeting-house of considerable bigness.’ Two or three years only afterwards (in 1679) another still more terrible fire occurred, when, we are told, all the warehouses and a great number of dwelling-houses, with the vessels then in the dock, were consumed, — the most woful desolation that Boston had ever seen. ‘Ah, Boston!’ exclaimed Mather in view of this catastrophe, ‘thou hast seen the vanity of all worldly possessions. One fatal morning, which laid fourscore of thy dwelling-houses and seventy of thy warehouses in a ruinous heap, gave thee to read it in fiery characters.’
“So fierce were the ravages of this last fire, we are told, that all landmarks were obliterated in several places; and considerable trouble was experienced in fixing the bounds of estates. But we are also told, ‘Rebuilding the burnt district went on with such rapidity, that lumber could not be had fast enough for the purpose;’ and, as Dr. Mather said eighteen years afterwards, the ruins were mostly and quickly rebuilt.
“In 1702 we read of another fire, which was for many years talked of as ‘the seventh great fire.’ It broke out near the dock, destroying a great amount of property; and ‘three warehouses were blown up to hinder its spreading.’ It thus seems that our fathers understood this mode of arresting the flames a hundred and seventy years ago, — perhaps better than we seem to have done in these latter days. But they must have been sadly deficient in other appliances; as, only two days before this fire broke out, a vote had been passed in town-meeting, ‘that the selectmen should procure two water-engines suitable for the extinguishing of fires, either by sending for them to England, or otherwise to provide them.’
“In October, 1711, again a still more destructive conflagration took place in Boston. The town-house, the old meeting-house, and about a hundred other houses and buildings, were destroyed, and a hundred and ten families turned out of doors. ‘But that,’ it is recorded, ‘which very much added unto the horror of the dismal night was the tragical death of many poor men, who were killed by the blowing-up of houses, or by venturing too far into the fire.’ The bones of seven or eight of these were supposed to be found. ‘From School Street to Dock Square, including both sides of Cornhill, all the buildings were swept away.’
“Once more, and finally, we turn over to 1760, when the remembrance of all other Boston fires was almost obliterated by that of the 20th of March of that year, which, it was said, ‘will be a day memorable for the most terrible fire that has happened in this town, or perhaps in any other part of North America, far exceeding that of the 2d of October, 1711, till now termed “the great fire.”’ Three hundred and forty-nine dwelling-houses, stores, and shops were consumed; and above one thousand people were left without a habitation.
“And thus has history repeated itself in the experiences of Boston; and thus we find that our early predecessors in these pleasant places were called to endure calamities by fire almost as great, perhaps quite as great, in proportion to the population and wealth, and means of relief, of their days, as those which have now fallen upon us. We see, too, with what constancy and courage they bore them, and how uniformly the record runs that ‘the ruins were quickly rebuilt.’
“I will not come down to later years; though, even within the memory of some now living and present, disastrous and wide-spread conflagrations have occurred, which seemed at first to overshadow the prospect of our prosperity and growth. But we see what Boston has become in spite of all these discouragements and drawbacks, and how the enterprise and bravery of her people, ever mounting with the occasion, have carried us onward and upward to the position and elevation which we have recently enjoyed; let me say, which we still enjoy. The same enterprise, the same courage, are still ours. With trust in each other, trust in ourselves, and trust in God, we shall go through our furnace of affliction as our fathers went through theirs, — not unscorched, certainly, but tried, purified, invigorated; and Boston will resume a leading place in the business of the country and of the world, and rise to greater eminence than it has ever yet attained.
“Yes, my friends, I am persuaded that those who succeed us in this Historical Society, — I will not say a century hence, nor even half a century, nor a quarter of a century, but at a much earlier period, — when they recall the incidents of this overwhelming conflagration, and describe the devouring element leaping from roof to roof with such terrible energy, and involving so much of the solidest part of our city in seemingly helpless, hopeless desolation, will say also, not only that there was no hanging of the head or folding of the arms in despair, but that, even while the embers were still casting their glaring light upon the sky, while the wearied firemen were still pouring rivers of water upon the smouldering, treacherous ruins, and before the danger of further destruction was altogether at an end, — even then the elastic and irrepressible spirit of our people asserted itself as it had never done before; that even then our noble merchants, with old, familiar names at their head, were engaging their architects and making their estimates for reconstruction; while the municipal authorities were running out the lines of new streets and new squares, and projecting the plans of a grander and safer business city than had ever before been witnessed here. And they will add to the record, that these plans were rapidly executed, and the reconstruction completely accomplished.
“True, we have lost much, and our hearts are in the deepest sympathy with the sufferers. Indeed, we are all sufferers together. There is no exemption from the results of this catastrophe; and I would not underestimate its severity. But how much we have left! — almost all the dwellings of the poor as well as of the rich; Faneuil Hall and the State House and the City Hall; the Old State House and the Old South; all our court-houses and record-offices, — not one touched; our public library, all our schoolhouses, and almost all our churches. Still more, the enterprise and liberality of our capitalists, the genius of our engineers and inventors, the public spirit of our citizens, the sympathy of our fellow-men everywhere, — all are left to us; and, above all else, that abiding faith and trust in a wise and merciful Providence which we inherited from our fathers (and from our mothers also), and which is emblazoned on the very seal of our city, — ‘Sicut Patribus, sit Deus nobis.’ While we are true to that motto, and to the spirit of that motto, Boston will never be called ‘Lost-Town,’ either proverbially or otherwise, however it may have been so called in the days which Cotton Mather described.”
It appears, that notwithstanding there were many accidental fires during the first twenty years of the town’s existence, yet there was no general conflagration until 1653, when occurred the first “great fire.” As Mr. Winthrop suggests, no particulars were ever recorded in any public way by which its location or extent could since be determined. It was for many years spoken of in sermons and letters as “the great fire.”
Nov. 27, 1676, a fire was accidentally set by a careless and sleepy apprentice, who dropped a lighted candle, or left it too near some combustible substance. This was the largest fire “ever known “in Boston, and swept the whole district between Richmond, Clark, and Hanover Streets, to the bay. The territory seems small to us of this day; but that region then was a very important part of Boston. The Rev. Increase Mather’s church and dwelling were destroyed, together with a portion of his valuable library. Mr. Hubbard, author of “The History of New England,” thus mentions that conflagration:
“After all the forementioned calamities and troubles, it pleased God to alarm the town of Boston, and in them the whole country, by a sad fire, accidentally kindled by the carelessness of an apprentice that sat up too late over night, as was conceived; which began an hour before day, continuing three or four, in which time it burned down to the ground forty-six dwelling-houses, besides other buildings, together with a meeting-house of considerable bigness. Some mercy was observed mixed with judgment; for, if a great rain had not continued all the time (the roofs and walls of their ordinary buildings consisting of such combustible matter), that whole end of the town had at that time been consumed. It began, about five in the morning, at one Wakefield’s house, by the Red Lion (tavern).
“The wind was south-east when it began, and blew hard: soon after it veered south, and brought so much rain as much prevented further mischief. Charlestown was endangered by the flakes of fire which were carried over the river.”
Up to this time, no provisions had been made by the town to extinguish fires. It is to be supposed that some efforts were at once made to secure an engine, as one appeared at the next fire. The names of the persons enrolled in the first fire-company that was organized in Boston were as follows; viz., John Barnard, Thomas Elbridge, Arthur Smith, John Mills, Caleb Rollins, John Wakefield, Obadiah Gill, Samuel Greenwood, John Rainsforth, Edward Martin, Thomas Barnard, and George Robinson. The foreman was a carpenter, by the name of Thomas Atkins. This company appeared in the next great fire, which occurred Aug. 7, 1678. It broke out at midnight, and burned until noon. It began near the dock (now Dock Square), and burned along the wharves, taking vessels, storehouses, and dwellings, and making most woful desolation.” Eighty dwellings and seventy warehouses were destroyed; and the loss was computed to be nearly two hundred thousand pounds. Cotton Mather, in one of his writings, exclaims, “Ah, Boston! thou hast seen the vanity of all worldly possessions.” So great was the demand for lumber with which to rebuild, that the supply was for a while completely exhausted. It appears to have been hastily yet substantially rebuilt; for one of the buildings constructed at that time is now standing on the corner of North Street and Dock Square. This fire so awakened the authorities to the necessity of making better provisions against fire, that a company of men, whose names are recorded, were authorized to blow up houses; while swabs, buckets, scoops, and axes were placed in each ward, and a sentinel kept in the church-towers on the sabbath day. Drake’s “History of Boston” refers to it, and says, “At a town-meeting ten days after the fire of the 8th of August, Capt. James Oliver was chosen commissioner, and Mr. Nathaniel Barnes clerk of the writs. A committee was appointed to join with the selectmen to consider what might be done for the safety of the town, and preventing fire. This committee consisted of John Richards, Dr. Elisha Cooke, Capt. John Walley, Capt. Daniel Henchman, Mr. James Whetcombe, and Mr. John Usher. Soon after, it was ordered that the eight foot companies should constitute the watch of the town, each in their own quarters or wards. The number of men to be detailed from each company for the service was thus stated: From Major Thomas Clarke’s, six; from Major Thomas Savage’s, six; Capt. James Oliver’s, five; Capt. William Hudson’s, six, and two at the powder-store; Capt. Daniel Henchman’s, five; Capt. John Richards’s, six; Capt. John Hull’s, five, and one at the powder-store; and of Capt. Humphrey Davis’s, five. It was at the same time ordered that the town should be divided into four quarters, each to consist of two wards; that in each quarter four barrels of powder should be lodged.; six hand-engines and two crooks in each ward. The care of the north quarter, containing Major Clarke’s and Capt. Richards’s companies, was committed to Major Clarke, Capt. Richards, Capt. Elisha Hutchinson, and Capt. Henchman; the conduit quarter, containing Major Savage’s and Capt. Henchman’s companies, to Mr. William Taylor, Lieut. Daniel Turill, Mr. Christopher Clarke, and Lieut. Anthony Checkley; the centre quarter, containing Capt. Oliver’s and Capt. Davis’s companies, to Major Thomas Savage, Mr. Anthony Stoddard, Capt. Thomas Brattle and Mr. Elisha Cooke; the south quarter, containing Capt. Hudson’s and Capt. Hull’s companies, to Mr. John Joyliffe, Capt. John Hull, Capt. John Faire-weather, and Capt. John Walley.”
In case of fire, these persons, or any two of them, were empowered to blow up or pull down houses. “Mr. Isacke Addington and Mr. John Joyliffe prose and put the foregoing in a right methode fit for press, together with all former orders relateing to fire.” It was further ordered, that, in every quarter of the town, there should be provided at the town’s charge twenty buckets, twenty swabs, two scoops, and six axes; that sixteen men, two out of every company, “doe ward in ye Towne every Sabbath day, one of wch is to be on ye Top of each meeting-house to look abroad for preuenting spreading of fire yt may break out.”
How long these strict regulations were observed does not appear: but it is certain, that, for a long time, there was no fire worthy of mention; and it is but reasonable to suppose that these precautions prevented any general conflagration.
There were fires in September and December of 1680, in October, 1690, and in August, 1691; but the next “great fire” happened in March, 1702. Breaking out again “near the dock,” it gained such headway, that three warehouses were blown up to prevent its spreading. Then the town voted to send to England for two water-engines.
In October, 1711, a disastrous conflagration visited the business-streets of the town, which was thereafter, with reason, denominated “the great fire.” It started in a back-yard, in a pile of oakum which a woman was picking by candle-light. Contemporary accounts speak of it as follows:
“It reduced Cornhill into miserable ruins, and it made its impression into King Street and Queen Street; and a great part of Pudding Lane was also lost before the violence of it could be conquered. Among these ruins there were two spacious edifices, which, until now, made a most considerable figure, because of the public relation to our greatest solemnities in which they had stood from the days of our fathers. The one was the town-house, the other the old meeting-house. The number of houses — and some of them very capacious buildings — which went into the fire with these is computed near about a hundred.
“But that which very much added to the horror of the dismal night was the tragical death of many poor men who were killed by the blowing-up of houses, or by venturing too far into the fire. of these the bones of seven or eight were supposed to be found.” At this time, a contribution in aid of the sufferers is first mentioned; seven hundred pounds having been given by the churches. The legislature soon after provided for ten firemen in each ward, who should have a badge of office; “namely, a staff five feet in length, colored red, with a bright brass spire six inches long.” These men were authorized to pull down or blow up houses, or do any thing deemed necessary to quell a fire; and could command assistance. The first engine-house appears to have been built “near the town-house,” in 1711.
The first fire-society in the city was organized in September, 1717.
In 1733 there must have been a large fire-department, as there were seven water-engines stationed in the town.
Dec. 9, 1747, a fire in the town-house destroyed many valuable records, the loss of which is felt to this day.
A fire in Oliver’s Dock, Nov. 14, 1759, did considerable harm, leaving fifteen families homeless. Even the governor worked with the firemen in extinguishing the flames; and we infer that it caused considerable excitement.
In March, 1760, came the next “great fire;” and it eclipsed all the others. It began, from some unknown cause, in Cornhill, at “the sign of the Brazen Head.” It raged down to Dock Square, sweeping a wide tract, down on the north side of King (State) Street to the wharves, and there destroying much merchandise and some shipping. Three hundred and forty-nine dwellings, stores, and shops were utterly consumed; and one thousand well-to-do people were left homeless. That part of Boston then was filled with very respectable dwellings. The loss exceeded a hundred thousand pounds. It must have been a terrible scene when the flames flew so fast from house to house, that notice could not be given the sick or sleeping before the fire was at their doors. The legislature voted three thousand pounds for the relief of sufferers. The Pennsylvania and New-York legislatures also voted liberal sums. Gov. Lawrence of Nova Scotia sent four hundred and eighty dollars, while merchants of New York and London sent large amounts. The great preacher Whitefield sent two hundred and fifty pounds from England. Then the legislature passed an act providing for the exclusive erection of brick and stone buildings.
In January, 1761, Faneuil Hall, and a row of shops near by, were destroyed.
June 10, 1762, another fire occurred in Cornhill, doing considerable damage; but it is recorded that the firemen “worked nobly,” and prevented very great destruction.
Feb. 10, 1767, there were twenty houses consumed in Centre Street (then Ball’s Alley), near the old Mill Creek.
In 1787 (April 20) a fire in Beach Street destroyed a hundred buildings; and of this number were the Hollis-street Church and sixty dwellings. It called out generous donations; and at this time Lafayette made his generous gift.
July 7, 1824, occurred the “great fire “which levelled fifteen houses on Beacon, Charles, and Chestnut Streets, and was only overcome after one of the hardest fights recorded in which the firemen of Boston took part.
April 7, 1825, the great square between Doane, Kilby, Batterymarch, and Broad Streets, was consumed, together with an enormous amount of property.
In May, 1835, the Blackstone-street fire occurred, which took away upwards of forty buildings, and left a number of families homeless. In all of these fires the fire-department was very efficient; and in some few cases silver medals were conferred for individual bravery.
Fires have since occurred as follows: Church-street district, May 11, 1845, when hundreds of families were rendered homeless. Mathews Block, on Eastern Avenue, including the whole square bounded by North and Clark Streets and the harbor, was burned Feb. 24, 1862: thousands are said to have been rendered homeless. The great fire in East Boston, July 4, 1861, destroyed a hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of property. There were two other fires of great magnitude, — one at Battery Wharf, April 27,1855, loss two hundred and ninety-eight thousand dollars; and one on Haverhill, Traverse, and Beverly Streets, Jan. 21, 1847, loss seventy-five thousand dollars; the late terrific conflagration in East Boston being the last of any importance previous to the time of which we are about to speak.
Such is the record of the fire-fiend in Boston, told as briefly as possible, — far too briefly to remind the reader of the thousands who suffered; of the tears, the groans, the deaths, the narrow escapes, noble daring, the romantic results, the poor-house, or chain, as they came crowding upon the searcher into the history of fires. But Boston has not suffered alone; and yet a great and good name has she for her willingness at all times to care for the suffering ones who lived in distant cities cursed by fire. New York, Washington, Chicago, Springfield, Portland, Pittsburg, and many other sister-cities, have been liberally aided in times of such disaster by Boston.
Pleasant, indeed, is it for cities, as well as men, “to dwell together in unity.”