Here to return to
BOSTON as a city is slow to anger, slow to hate, and slow to fear. It has become proverbial, that her people “always stop to think.” Their faith in each other, which is a characteristic of nobility next to faith in God, has also become a proverb for the people of the West. Whether it be literally true, as Pres. Woolsey once said, that “the inhabitants trust their all to the law and the fire-department, without a thought of danger to disturb their social parties or their sweet repose,” we cannot say: at all events, it so appears to the mere observer. When the alarm was sounded on that fatal Saturday night, there were thousands within sound of the bells who were to be losers, and yet who could scarcely remember afterwards that they heard the bells at all. There was heard the clatter of hastening feet on the sidewalks; for it was early in the evening, and there always follows a crowd of boys in the wake of the steam fire-engines: but the great thinking, losing masses gave the bells no thought, sipped their tea, and read their evening paper, with that sense of security which none feel but those whose faith in the integrity and heroism of humanity is strong and unshaken.
Even then, when the whistle of scores of engines and the shouts of firemen made the city echo with continual alarms, and when the rattle of horses’ hoofs and the clatter of many feet announced the hurried arrival of engines from Cambridge, Charlestown, Lynn, Dedham, Brookline, Providence, Worcester, Somerville, Salem, Chelsea, and other kind-hearted cities, the steady-going merchants of Boston hesitated. Could it be possible that the fire would spread farther? But when the fire had consumed the buildings and the great stocks of merchandise of many who were not present to care for their own, or who had hesitated too long, then began the awakening to danger. It was long, too long, but fully in accord with conservative Boston, before the fear came which moved to action; but. when it was felt, the streets everywhere suddenly burst into noisy life. The telegraph called in the suburbans; messengers with pallid faces rushed from street to street, carrying the tidings that “Boston was all in flames.”
Then came the rushing of multitudes, the rattle of heavy vehicles, and, alas! the array of thieves, hurrying with reckless speed toward the mountain of solid flame.
Rumors of losses, of dreadful deaths, and ghastly wounds, added to the excitement; and thousands of faces which even the glare could not flush gazed upon the volcano, or hurried past to save what they could from the almost sure destruction. Then came the bundles, bales, boxes, that blocked the sidewalks, and arose in huge heaps in the open streets; thousands hurrying toward the Common or some distant street, loaded with dry-goods, fancy goods, crockery, jewelry, money, furniture, clothing, and some of every conceivable kind of wares, jamming, jostling, crowding, cursing, — more like denizens of some pandemonium than men of blood and brains. Some with worthless empty boxes whirled recklessly through the crowd, leaving behind, in their insanity, money, and stocks of inestimable value. Others carried valuable pieces of delicate fabrics for long distances, and then hastily tossed them down upon the sidewalk, or left them unbroken in the mud. Terror-stricken people, when once their confidence in the fire-department was lost, knew nothing, it would appear, so reckless or foolish, that they would not do it. Families, miles from the fire, packed up their all, and moved into the streets; while one lady on Tremont Street threw her best apparel into the well on the suggestion of a negro servant. The towns and cities poured their inhabitants into Boston from every road and path; for the light of the fire shone brightly on the trees and hills fifty miles away.
The wind — which rose and played with the streams and sparks, and now and then, with apparent delight, dashed into the crater with roaring whirlwinds, and carried up to the heavens blazing clouds, and huge ribbons of wildfire — wafted upwards, in some of the gusts, pieces of merchandise, account-books, and checks signed and unsigned, in pyrotechnic flashes, and sent them away, partially consumed on the upper currents, to notify the anxious losers in towns twenty miles away that their counting-rooms and stores had been invaded.
Then it was that the hearts of all were filled with fear, and dismay was seen in every countenance. Fire was consuming, water destroying, thieves robbing, and no hope of a cessation. Men became desperate. City Hall was besieged for the mayor; but as, in time of fire, the chief engineer has supreme command, the tide of human beings turned down Washington, Milk, and Water Streets, in search of Mr. Damrell. When these bands found the overburdened chieftain, they advised, threatened, gesticulated, and yelled, demanding a thousand impossible things.
But one call was heeded, and that was for powder and soldiers. They who so imperatively demanded guards were themselves a standing proof of the necessity for them. Then came the powder to mine and to shatter, and the soldiers to assist the police in regulating and protecting; but though powder scattered, engines roared, and the streets were packed with brave, disciplined firemen, the devastation went on.
The numbers and excitement increased with every hour. The noise of wheels, the yells of the truckmen, the cursing of hackmen, the deep murmuring of the . ocean of human life as it surged through the streets, were such as to impress the hearer with an undefined sense of terror, — feeling frightened, and yet hardly knowing of what. The great city flashed into gaslight as by a single stroke; and windows were illuminated, and doors left wide open, which years of nightly darkness had never seen by gaslight before. Every garret was lit up, every hall-lamp in blaze, every cellar lighted; while up and down, in and around, with wild haste darted the shadowy forms of men and women, gathering together their most costly pieces of furniture and clothing, preparing for the speedy flight.
In some localities nearest the fire the front fences were crowded with clothing; sheets flapping in the wind, pillows and bolsters carpeting the sidewalk, chairs overturned in the yard, bedsteads partially protruding from chamber-windows, and the same confused voices and constantly disappearing and re-appearing bundle-bearers everywhere.
In those portions of the city which were far removed from immediate danger, and which were usually so quiet, there could be heard the rush of footsteps, the shrill-voiced warnings, the clicking of latch-keys, the sharp cling of door-bells, and the continual rapping on door and window, summoning sleepers to a dawn of fire, and a reality worse than their most feverish dreams.
Even dark alleys and the narrowest by-ways were startled into life by the flitting forms of men bearing homeward account-books, precious packages, and heavy boxes. Whether they were thieves or not, none but themselves could tell, and none stopped to inquire.
But as the night went on, and the wild fire in its conscious power assaulted the very heavens, the scenes in the burning streets cannot be described. Firemen in rubber-coats, dragging long lines of snaky hose along the flooded pavement, pulling it under, over, and through the intricate netting of water-pipes already laid; the curling clouds of black smoke above the glittering engines, and the flashing sparks beneath; the swaying of ladders; the knocking-in of windows; the spider-like firemen clambering up ladders and along narrow projections; the shoots of water dashing upward from the street, and outward from almost every window towards the consuming blocks; the unhinging of doors, and the use of them as shields against the heat; men rolling in the pools by the curb-stones to extinguish the fire on their clothing; the pushing and gesticulating policemen; the bee-hive doorways of mercantile warehouses, with humming hundreds flying in and out, carrying away carefully-laid stores to the wagons around the corner; the revolving cylinders of the hose-carriages; the falling fabrics hastily and carelessly discharged upon the crowds below; the shouting hangers-on to eaves and chimneys; the groups of daring, thoughtless sewing-girls; the up‑spurting leakages on the overtaxed pipes, and the mists of spray and smoke, — all, combined with the thousands of kaleidoscopic changes that cannot be recalled, made hideous the night, and left impressions on the spectator which ages of earthly life cannot efface. These scenes grew wilder as the devastation became more widespread, and as the night advanced, until it was bewildering. Men were calmer, but worked harder. The work was better systematized with each hour: but, the better the arrangements, the more could work; and consequently, like complicated military movements, it seemed all the more a chaos to the uninitiated.
But in the glad light of day which softened the glare, and took away those imaginary evils that ever lurk in the shadows of night, the scene changed. The appearance of the burned district behind the fire, and the city elsewhere, on that memorable sabbath, was thus accurately and vividly described at the time by Mr. Edward King of “The Boston Journal:” —
“The most intense excitement prevailed along all the lines of travel leading into Boston; and the early morning trains from New York were crammed with passengers from the way-stations, — insurance-agents hurrying to verify the rumors of their losses; prominent businessmen, who received the appalling news just as they were settling down for a quiet sabbath in their suburban homes; and a vast number of the ‘curious,’ who always flock to the scene of the great disaster. Engines were hastily prepared; and, when the Shore-Line train from New York arrived (six hours behind time on account of an accident to another train near Saybrook) at Providence, a large police-force and an anxious and huge delegation of business-men rushed into the already-crowded cars. Two fire-engines were packed on a platform car, and attached to the train; and as it rapidly whirled towards Boston, and arrived at Mansfield, a dense smoke, or discoloration of the sky, — the dull, dun veil which the fire-fiend draws over his horrible work, as if afraid of affronting the purity of the sky, — was visible. At each little station the whole local population had assembled, and was listening with eagerness for a repetition of the explosions which had been heard during the forenoon, or pointing to the stained skies. Businessmen, when the train reached Boston, did not wait to arrive at the regular station, but rushed out en masse at the Back-Bay stopping-point, and took to their legs rapidly for down town. The panic seemed to have spread as fast as did the conflagration.
“Approaching the burned district toward noon, one might readily have fancied himself in a recently captured and bombarded town. The crowds, although gayly dressed and rampant with curiosity, were far from jolly, and looked with frightened and dazzled air on the labyrinth of smoking ruins which had once been a mass of busy avenues of commerce. Boston’s centre seemed suddenly to have vanished: the ‘old familiar paths’ existed no longer. Truck-wagons, light express-teams, carriages, hand-carts, crammed the side-streets which remained intact, and were loaded with household-goads or masses of costly fabrics which had been removed with trembling hands at an early hour in the morning, when it seemed as if no quarter of the city could be saved. Cordons of soldiery with fixed bayonets kept off the pressing crowd, or, capturing a host of citizens between two lines reaching from curb to curb, marched them to side-streets, and gently expelled them from the vicinity of the crumbling and overhanging ruins. The roll of the drum was heard on every side; the sonorous ‘Fall in’ echoed; and those turbulently inclined among such of the spectators as had not directly felt the sting of loss by the conflagration were speedily subdued by the militia-men, who seemed to bear a full sense of their importance. Here and there a group of stout, fresh soldiers, wearing the traditional long blue overcoats and white gloves, but with their smoke-begrimed heads crowned with dilapidated hats, kept guard over some valuable merchandise piled on the sidewalks at a safe distance from the ruins. Now and then one saw a bustle, and heard indignant cries, as some ambitious thief, who thought to enrich himself during the mêlée, was hustled away to the Tombs; and on every side the weary firemen dragged themselves along, covered with smoke and dirt, dauntless to the last, although the hand of Fate had proved stronger than their human arms. Every bit of vantage-ground, from the dread corner near which the fatal fire began to the water-side and along State, was crowded with the motley groups of spectators, each asking a hundred questions in as many breaths. The vista from the vicinity of Summer Street was grandiose and disheartening. Flames flickered up from time to time from the mass of broken, seared, disjointed masonry, played around the cracked and dismantled bases of the great carved iron pillars, and sometimes burst out vehemently from the interstices of the débris; and great columns of smoke rose majestically into the clear air, and then formed into party-colored clouds which cast dull shadows over the scene. At a little distance in the ruin-field, the smoke almost shut off the view; and the fragmentary wall of an ordinary business-block, or the tottering section of some huge furnace, lately a row of houses, took on fantastic forms. Looking from Kingston Street through the burnt district, one could perceive all the aspects of a bombardment. Bazeilles, Auteuil, and Château d’En, heaped together, would not have made so dread a view. St. Cloud was child’s play beside it. The scene was picturesque in its very desolation. Beyond the line of bayonets lay the ash-covered ruins, with a group of blue-coated soldiers standing out in strong relief against the dull background. A long line of workmen was tugging at a huge cable destined to pull down a wall. In the foreground a group of militia-men were lunching from provisions disposed on a hand-cart, and kissing their hands to the ladies who had served the welcome food. A sturdy policeman stood like a statue, offering his broad back as a buttress against the crowd; and here and there a fire-engine puffed wearily, and shrieked impatiently, as if angry that its task had been so long and ineffectual. As evening approached, and it became evident that the fire was mainly under control, the firemen and their improvised human teams began to frolic as they drew the engines from point to point; but the levity created no echo in the crowd. With the descent of dusk over the acres of disaster came a gloom into the hearts of all Bostonians such as has never been felt before.”