Here to return to
THE appearance of the burnt quarter, after the fire had spent itself and the work of destruction had ended, was of a vast city of ruins, the limit of which could at no point be seen, still smoking and steaming violently from the shock that had caused its fearful overthrow. Very little, if any thing, was left to show what had been. In the stead of noble buildings of granite and marble and brick were huge, giant walls, torn and ragged, and broken columns of stone and iron. The lines of the streets were entirely obliterated; and the ways were so blocked by great bowlders of granite, and heaps of débris, — in some places from three to ten feet deep, — that those who had been most familiar with the section before the fire were utterly unable to find their way, and groped about, or clambered over the obstructing rock, brick, iron, and still hot rubbish, dazed and bewildered. Pearl-street “leather-men” searched around the vicinity of the new post-office building for the sites of their stores and warehouses, and were startled by the sudden looming-up, right before them, of that splendid pile, out of the smoke and steam which enveloped and shrouded every thing like huge banks of fog. Sight-seers peering for the ruin of old Trinity Church on Summer Street were surprised by the unexpected appearance of some familiar object in the midst of strange and foreign sights, which proved to them that they were far away from Trinity, and working in a direction, which, if followed, would lead them still farther off. A man was seen wandering around what was once the lower part of Water Street with a sign announcing the new quarters of a bank, diligently searching, as one would search for a lost jewel in a dust-heap, for some mark of the site of its old building, which was not far from the corner of Congress Street; and men were constantly inquiring of each other what section of the sixty acres of the ruin they were in.
BOSTON IN RUINS.
The scenes within the lines of the ruins were novel and picturesque in the extreme. They were bits of pictures only, considering the magnitude of the devastated territory. For three days the smoke was so thick and blinding, that no extended view could anywhere be had. There were life and energy and spirit at every hand. Here, in the midst of huge heaps of hot bricks, surrounded by fires yet smouldering and crackling, men were pushing the work of clearing away the wrecks, which had begun at the very break of dawn on Monday, or of digging out the buried safes and vaults, and crowded about them, picturesquely grouped, were many interested spectators. Here firemen were directing powerful streams of water upon yet powerful fires burning and roaring fiercely; and engines were puffing in their nervous, jerky way. Here, comfortably fixed upon mounds of rubbish, with a huge granite block for their table, and smaller blocks for their chairs, was a knot of out-of-towners, who had somehow succeeded in passing the guards surrounding the entire district, lunching on rural viands, — lunching, in the midst of awful wreck and ruin, as merrily and cheerily as in a quiet, peaceful, country picnicking-place. Here urchins who had stormed the lines were peddling “relics,” bits of crockery, pieces of fantastically-twisted iron, blackened hard-boiled eggs, which they energetically protested had stiffened in the fiery furnace, — queer formations displaying brilliant hues and exquisite tints, strips of charred leather, and numerous other oddly-shaped pieces of rubbish. Here guardsmen were seen through the smoke, pacing up and down their posts, or, forgetful of their duty, picking out “relics” with their bayonet-points; and cavalry-men riding and clambering solemnly and grimly over the heaps of broken and smoking stuff. One standing in the midst of the ruins, and looking about him, noting the blue-clad sentinels, the towering walls rent and torn in every direction, the broken pillars and iron-work, the huge heaps of jagged granite-blocks and débris under his feet, could easily imagine himself gazing upon a great city destroyed but a brief time before by a terrific bombardment. One wall on Milk Street, by the new post-office building, looked just as if a shell had plunged through it, and made dreadful havoc with what had been beyond. A long, narrow clearing, terminated by a fantastically ragged tower of masonry, looked not unlike the path of a shell; and the sure finger-marks of powder, rather than fire, seemed to be clear and unmistakable at every hand.
At night the moon shone; and the ruins were lighted up by its mellow light, and the ruddy glow from the still burning fires, with a strange and singular brightness. A walk through the quarter at this time revealed a scene of desolation, which by daylight, when men were toiling busily, and things were moving over and about the place, lending life to the picture, was absent. There was a weird, grotesque beauty in the prospect, that was strangely fascinating. The fantastic proportions of the fragments of walls were sharply marked. The tower of Trinity, the most “artistic” of all the effects in the burnt quarter, stood out grand and beautiful, forming with its surroundings a picture resembling those of the noble ruins of ancient cities; and the upright fronts of buildings, with their windows bright by the firelight, looked like lighted castles in the midst of devastation: “The mysterious, intense, Rembrandt effects of fitful light and shade,” wrote a journalist in one of the newspapers of the following morning; “the moonlight occasionally penetrating through rifts of smoke, blending with the flickering firelight; the exaggerated shapes of lonely columns and irregular masses of wall; the silence, broken only by the occasional hoarsely-given order of a fireman, or, mayhap, the distant chatter of a party of women whom some one is escorting through the wonderful scene, — all combine to produce an impression, of which nothing we can liken it to will convey an adequate conception. The imagination may conjure up such a scene; genius, perhaps, might partially represent it on canvas: no words we can command can describe it. Shadowy, lurid, silent, grand, awful, desolate, fantastic, it possesses the imagination; and the adventurer wonders whether he is still in the body, a creature of senses and instincts, or a being as unsubstantial and strange and dreary as the phantasmagoria by which he is surrounded. If it were not for the occasional group of firemen directing a stream of water on some flame that the wind is fanning to some comparative violence of passion, and the half-dozen explorers like- himself whom he meets, and who stare at him in a wondering way, as if his appearance in such a place, and not theirs, was the questionable thing, one might well suppose he had’ left the abodes of men, and fallen upon the chaotic surface of another planet, whose fires had been but incompletely quenched.”
The aspect of the ruins changed from day to day. During Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, a thousand or more laborers were engaged in the work of clearing the rubbish from the streets, and marking the thoroughfares; others were toiling industriously for the recovery of safes and valuables; and large gangs of others were tearing down the dangerous pieces of masonry standing, — some working, under the direction of the chief of the department of inspection of buildings, with pulleys and ropes and irons; and others, under the military authorities, with dualin, — a much more dangerous and noisy tool. By the end of the week all the streets were cleared, so that teams could with a little difficulty pass each other with Safety; the ways along the outer edge of the district were open to public travel; nearly every thing of value had been removed from the rubbish; and the work of building temporary structures had fairly begun. Yet the fires were not out. Smoke and steam continued to come up in dense volumes out of the cellars; burning leather, and great heaps of coal, yet crackled and roared furiously; and the ruins of vast proportions were yet picturesque and fascinating, and so they remained for some time. The guards during these days were exceedingly strict, acting under orders from headquarters, issued at the request of the city authorities; but many idlers got somehow by them, and constantly perambulated the quarter, loading their pockets and persons with rubbish which they collected as “relics,” joining interestedly the groups about the workmen engaged in opening the safes as they were recovered from the ruins in the heaped-up basements, and joining in the expressions of sympathy when it was found — which, alas! was too often the case — that the great iron boxes contained, instead of money and wealth, only ashes and poverty.
Photographers also passed the lines, and perched themselves on stone-heaps in the most picturesque quarters, taking views, and making of themselves pictures which sauntering artists outlined in their notebooks; and many of the class of mysterious vandals who go about o’ nights, and are seldom seen disfiguring the landscape of the country, overcame the barriers, and painted and posted on the dead walls, the sides of granite columns, and the flat surface of upturned stone-blocks, advertisements of all manner of notions and nostrums. When the rubbish was cleared from the streets, it was seen that the cobble-stones with which some of them were paved were badly cracked and crumbled; that the cross-walks were broken, in some instances, into many pieces; and the curb-stones were chipped and worn as by a dull chisel, or the ill-directed blows of a blunt hammer. All this was caused by the intense heat.
But more interesting than these marks of the fire’s power were portions of the Milk and Water Street fronts of the new post-office building. The granite columns way up near the top of the structure appeared like partly-melted candles, and the granite cross-pieces were chipped fantastically.
At the time of the fire, the face of the granite was peeled off “like a chestnut in a toaster;” and great granite-chips tumbled to the ground as if an invisible hand with mallet and steel was at work, bent on defacing the smooth surface and sharp lines with all the haste possible.
The militia-men were on guard around and about the burnt quarter for two weeks, day and night. On the Monday morning after the fire they formed a stern, unbroken line from Avon Place, along Washington Street to Water; through Water to Devonshire; along Devonshire, through Congress Square, to Congress Street; through Congress to State; along State to Kilby; through Kilby to Water and Broad; along the Fort-hill territory and the water-front; up along behind Summer Street, Bedford, Kingston, and around again to Avon Place; enclosing a territory of more than a hundred acres. Pressing against this line was a crowd of sightseers all through that day and during the next, peering curiously into the smoke and dust, pleading for a passage through, or begging for some “relic.” A multitude journeyed to the city, from all directions and from great distances, on the first days following the fire; and, by their conduct, gave Boston a strange, unnatural look; made it present spectacles more like what one might look for in a French city than a puritanical American place. On Monday “there were pictures of awful desolation and ruin in one great section; and immediately about and around, in marked contrast, pictures of a holiday or gala-day kind.” Beyond the military lines, but in the streets near by, on the piers on one side, and along the paths of the Common on the, other, “strangers thronged unceasingly from morning till night, looking contented, interested, and happy, watching the cavalry as they cantered by, examining the wares of the itinerant peddlers on the Tremont mall, studying the smoky sky through the big telescope, or trying the lung-testers; carrying themselves, for all the world, as if it were a festival they had journeyed hither to see, rather than the destruction of a great section of a great city by fire.” The militia-men were quartered in various sections of the city; one regiment occupying the shattered Old South Church. On Tuesday evening we followed the officer of the night on the “grand rounds,” and looked into the venerable meeting-house of sacred memories upon the strange sight its interior presented. Here was a scene recalling that which a visitor to the old church in the days long passed might have seen, when his Majesty’s troops scandalized the patriotic citizens of Boston by quartering in the sacred place. Men in blue were moving about, musket in hand, or sleeping in the wide, old-fashioned pews. A group were lounging about the old pulpit, chatting and chaffing; and other knots, engaged apparently in the same comfortable and harmless occupation, were gathered here and there. The light was dim and dismal, coming from tallow-candles stuck into the gas-brackets, and held up from bayonet-points; and the air was sharp and chilling, the shattered windows admitting every breeze.
A week after the terrible devastation, there were little puffs of smoke still visible; but the great piles of broken granite and the shattered walls were silent and grand, reminding one of Pompeii and the crumbling temples of Baalbec and Petræa.