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History of the Great Fire of Boston
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TO appreciate the full effect which the great fire had upon the boot and shoe trade of Boston, and to realize how great was the loss to the commercial world, it will be necessary in this, as in writing of the wool and the dry-goods trades, to consider the time taken, and the capital used, in establishing this feature of the city’s commerce. Neither Boston, nor any branch of its traffic, was built in a day. Especially true is this of the boot and shoe trade. From the smallest of beginnings, and from the hardest of work, did the shoe and leather trade begin; yet its growth was marvellous. In a half-century it arose from an unpretending retail bartering to such importance, that ships, steamboats, and railways found themselves almost exclusively in its employ. Manufactories arose in all the suburban towns, as the city proper could not contain them; and even into New Hampshire and Vermont went the searchers after favorable sites for the building of shoe-shops. Pearl Street with its millions of wealth, and High Street with its mountains of leather, were only the heads of the great trade whose body and limbs extended far back into New England, and to supply the demands of which thousands of men and women were paid their weekly wages.

Fifty years ago, the shoe and leather trade was of such insignificance as to deserve no mention. There were no large manufacturing establishments; only one or two Wholesale houses, and a number of “custom boot and shoe makers.”

In the early history of the shoe-trade, the out-of-town manufacturers used to drive to town with their wagonloads of boots, made by hand and with downright hard work. They always stopped at Wilde’s Hotel, in Elm Street, which was kept for many years by Enoch Patterson. There, about the door, the bar-room, or the parlor, those pioneers of this great traffic sold their shoes and boots, and purchased their new supplies of heather: and the visitor at Wilde’s on Wednesday Or Saturday would have seen those little squads of shoemakers and leather-dealers; and he could not fail to note how, day by day, the numbers increased, the transactions grew in magnitude, while news of shoe-factories and of tanneries being constructed in the neighboring towns filled up the hours of gossip about the “office fireplace.” Wilde’s tavern was the shoe and leather exchange, to all intents and purposes, until the numbers and wealth of the traders led them to transfer their headquarters to the American House near by. The first traders were Quakers from Lynn, among whom Nathan Burd, Isaiah Burd, Micajah Pratt, and Samuel Boyce, are considered the earliest shoemakers for the wholesale trade.

About forty years ago, the first wholesale boot and shoe store was opened on South Market Street by Amasa Walker, who retired from business about twenty-five years ago, and who has been a member of Congress. Mr. Walker now resides in West Brookfield. He entered into a partnership, by which the firm became known as Walker, Emerson, and Co.; and still exists, after many changes, in the house of Potter, White, and Bailey.

Soon after Mr. Walker’s venture, the manufacturers whose establishments were out of the city began to open offices and take stores for the exhibition and storage of their stock; and, in a surprisingly small space of time, these salesrooms grew into wholesale warehouses. These were nearly all situated about Quincy Market, and in Blackstone, Fulton, and Central Streets.

It was not until about twenty years ago that the boot and shoe dealers began to move into Pearl Street, tending, like all the other branches of trade, to the southward. Fifteen years ago, there was a general stampede of the dry-goods dealers from Pearl Street into Franklin and Devonshire and Federal Streets; while the boot and shoe manufacturers followed close in their wake, and used the whole street, with several leading from it, exclusively for the wholesale boot, shoe, and leather trade. The last dry-goods firm to move away from Pearl Street was Houghton, Sawyer, and Co. About eight years ago, the leather-dealers, who are naturally closely allied with the boot and shoe traders, began to move into Congress and High Streets; the latter being used, at their advent, for dwellings by Irish families, they having been, a score of years before, the home of Boston’s most prominent men. It was made much wider; and magnificent stone buildings took the place of the tenement-houses, until it was one of the finest streets in the city. S. R. Spaulding was the first person who constructed a store on High Street. It was only a year before the fire that the last dwelling disappeared; and that was replaced by a granite structure, built also by Mr. Spaulding.


Meantime the shoe-trade became so crowded in Pearl Street, that it began to move into South Street, where, at the time of the fire, considerable improvement had already been made.

Pearl Street was a very fashionable dwelling-place forty years ago, before the dry-goods trade moved in; and at that time there were no business-hoses nearer than Kilby Street.

Many people now living well remember the mansion of Mr. Pratt, known as “The Pearl-street House,” with its large garden, and the houses owned by the Perkins family, one of which was given by Col. Thomas H. Perkins to the Institution for the Blind, and another of which was presented to the Boston Athenæum by James Perkins, and which was occupied by that corpora ion for many years. The site of the old Athenæum was covered by Gov. Claflin’s wholesale store. They will also recall the stately mansion at the corner of Pearl and High Streets, so well known as “Harris’s Folly.” Some idea of the magnitude of this trade, which brought in so much wealth and supported so many great men (among whom were Henry Wilson, William Claflin, John B. Alley, and Amasa Walker), can be formed by the amount of freight it was obliged to send by the railways during each year.

In 1871, 220,000,000 pounds of hides and leather, and 1,636,152 cases of boots and shoes, were transported on account of the manufacturers and dealers of New England. Estimating the average weight of hides at twenty pounds, of leather at fifteen pounds a side, and of boots and shoes at eighty pounds a case, and the distance carried at a hundred and seventy-five miles for hides and leather, and a thousand miles for boots and shoes, the aggregate number of tons carried one mile was 84,696,080.

After the abandonment of Wilde’s Tavern (for neither hotel nor street could hold them all), the American House was made the general rendezvous of the trade until the recent organization of the Shoe and Leather Association, and the opening of an “exchange” in Pearl Street.

In “The Shoe and Leather Reporter” of a recent date. we find the following statement with regard to the losses sustained by the merchants engaged in this traffic:

 “There were for hundred and fifty-five firms and individuals burned out by the great fire. of these a hundred and ninety-nine were wholesale boot and shoe dealers and manufacturers, a hundred and fifty-nine leather-dealers, fourteen hide-dealers, and the rest engaged in collateral branches, such as findings, last-makers, &c. It is estimated that there were destroyed three hundred thousand sides of sole-leather, worth a million two hundred thousand dollars; a million dollars’ worth of sheep-skins and linings; five hundred thousand sides of finished leather, wax, kip, &c., worth two million dollars; forty thousand hides, dry and green, of upper-leather; and fifteen thousand barrels of tanners’ oils, worth three hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars, besides large quantities of other goods pertaining to the trade. We append some individual statistics: Coon, Crocker, and Hobart, loss a hundred and thirty thousand dollars; Milton, Gale, and Co., loss forty-five thousand dollars; James A. Roberts, loss sixteen thousand dollars; Warren Mallard and Son, loss twenty thousand dollars; L. and M. Faxon, loss ten thousand dollars; Claflin and Thayer, loss sixty thousand dollars; Albert Thompson and Co., loss two hundred thousand dollars; Horace Billings and Son, loss fifty-five thousand dollars; Henry Poor and Sons, loss some four hundred and fifty thousand dollars; James O. Safford, loss fifty thousand dollars on building, besides some fifty thousand hides; Way, Hewins, and Reed, loss a hundred and forty thousand dollars; F. Upton and Co., loss twenty thousand sides sole-leather; Marsh Brothers, loss twenty thousand dollars; E. B. Phillips, loss a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars; Leonard, Bundy, and Co., loss fifty thousand dollars; J. and H. K. Osborn, loss twenty-two thousand dollars; B. G. Boardman and Co., loss ninety thousand dollars on buildings, besides ten thousand hides; Bucking and Brown, loss forty-four thousand dollars; Edward Spaulding and Bumstead, loss twenty thousand dollars (their store was worth sixty-five thousand dollars, and was owned by the special partner, S. R. Spaulding); A. L. White and Co., loss thirty-three thousand dollars; Sears and Warner, loss sixty thousand dollars; Moseley and Dunn, loss sixty thousand dollars; L. Beebe, loss seventy-five thousand dollars; Hubbard and Blake, loss twenty-nine thousand dollars; Shaw, Taylor, and Co., loss five thousand dollars; Skilton and Dole, loss fifty thousand dollars; W. and E. Sawyer, loss nine thousand dollars; Johnson, Eaton, and Brackett, loss a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The principal dealers in sole-leather, whose names follow, lost an aggregate of two hundred and fifty thousand sides: F. Shaw and Brothers; Atherton, Stetson, and Co.; Henry Poor and Son; H. Billings and Son; Low, Hersey, and Co.; Spaulding and Bumstead; N. W. Rice and Co.; Healey, Farnam, and Co.; A. L. White and Co.; Albert Thompson and Co.; Thomas E. Proctor and Co.; F. Upton and Co.; Henry Bond; J. W. Low; E. and M. Faxon; J. P. Rogers and Co.; McConnell and Gardner; B. G. Boardman and Co.; John B. Alley and Co.; Johnson, Eaton, and Brackett.”

By “The Commercial Bulletin” of Sept. 2, we find that Pearl Street, during the previous Week, had been “literally crowded with heavy teams of all kinds, loading up shoe-boxes to be taken to the various shipping-points; and Pearl Street has been one of the busiest localities in Boston. The California trade is gradually dropping off as new factories spring up in that State. One Boston firm, who has two factories in San Francisco, turned out last year over two million dollars’ worth of goods. One of these factories is operated by Chinese labor.”

The officers of the New-England Shoe and Leather Association at the date of the fire deserve a place in history; and we give them accordingly: John Cummings, president; Edward P. Bond, secretary; and E. W. Bumstead, treasurer.

At the earliest possible moment, land was leased of the city on the Fort-hill clearing for temporary stores while the burned district was being rebuilt; and, within a few days, iron buildings of imposing size and shape sheltered many of the energetic firms connected with that trade.

The wool-trade was an important branch of the city’s commercial interests: it was nearly all located on Devonshire, Franklin, and adjoining streets; and its warehouses and stock on hand were, consequently, destroyed. It had long been of considerable importance, but was largely on the increase at the date of that great misfortune. The amount of wool imported during the ten preceding years sums up as follows: 1863, 14,147,278 pounds; 1864, 19,783,599 pounds; 1865, 11,821,280 pounds; 1866, 17,993,826 pounds; 1867, 11,480,507 pounds; 1868, 7,080,855 pounds; 1869, 14,629,743 pounds; 1870, 12,244,293 pounds; 1871, 28,144,159 pounds; 1872, 39,691,990 pounds. These amounts, together with large quantities of native wool, were used in the manufacture of fabrics for the American markets; and the destruction of such quantities seriously retarded the factories in the vicinity of Boston.

The quantity of wool destroyed was given by the best authorities as follows: Say a hundred and fifty thousand pounds fine scoured, forty-five thousand pounds tub, four million pounds fleece, a million pounds pulled, a hundred thousand pounds Cape, a million eight hundred thousand pounds California, two hundred thousand pounds South American, a million five hundred thousand pounds Australian, five hundred thousand pounds sundries; the total value being about four million five hundred thousand dollars. There were fourteen million seven hundred thousand pounds in the United-States bonded warehouse; which, fortunately, were not destroyed.

The losses of those engaged in the paper interest were large. More than three-fourths of all the paper warehouses and firms in the city were completely burned out. Every one of the large houses was destroyed. Rice, Kendall, and Co.; H. M. Clarke and Co.; Cutter, Tower,. and Co.; S. D. Warren and Co.; George W. Wheelwright and Co.; Wilder and Co.; Lyman Hollingsworth and Co.; B. H. Thayer and Co., — suffered more or less severely. These houses were mostly situated on Milk, Congress, and Federal Streets, in the section where the fire Was hottest; and, consequently, but little of the stock they contained could be saved. The total loss was put in round figures, by a member of one of the most prominent of the burned-out houses, at three and a quarter millions in stock. The stock in store at the time of the fire was not very large. of the leading houses, Rice, Kendall, and Co. probably had the largest stock on hand. This they valued at from seventy to seventy-five thousand dollars.

The effect on the trade by the fire was not of a disastrous nature. The progress of business was of course checked; but that was all. There were no failures, and no suspensions: there were hardships and “put-backs.” But the men who suffered here, like those in other branches of trade, put on a brave look, and pushed ahead out of their difficulties speedily and grandly. When the fire came, business was opening up good. The mills outside of the city were working on full time, and orders were plentiful. After it, in less than a week, orders came in; and the report from the trade generally was, “We’re looking up, and will soon be out of the woods.”

The dry-goods trade and its branches affected by the fire was so extensive, and its numbers so great, that its very magnitude prevents any extended notice. It will be a long time before any accurate estimate of it can be made; and even then there must be much more searching and calculating than will be made by busy Bostonians. The wholesale dry-goods business represented a capital of fifty millions; and it was nearly all destroyed in the fire. The names and losses would fill an entire book.

How three hundred large establishments could be consumed, with nearly all the stock on hand, and yet the trade move on, and there be so few bankrupts, is a study for those who have not been made acquainted with the reserve capital and energy which Boston ever holds. Within twelve hours after the fire, hundreds of dry-goods merchants were on their way to New York to purchase new stocks while their partners selected new rooms. It was said by cautious calculators, that there was more merchandise destroyed which belonged to the dry-goods trade than to all the others combined. It was enormous, but just how much no one can ever tell.

The clothing-business was second only to the dry-goods trade in its effects upon the general traffic of Boston. The thousands of working-girls thrown out of employment, the estimation of capital lost, and the time which it was necessary to take for the securing of other quarters, served to disturb the community more than any other one thing that happened in that week of horrors.

The hardware-trade also suffered severely, and a hundred other branches of mercantile life lost more or less. The commerce of the whole land was injured by it; and who shall say that the loss to the world, and the pain it entailed, were not greater than it would have been had a territory of the same size been burned over among the dwellings? At least two hundred and fifty acres of business-territory, if we reckon the different flats of the buildings destroyed, were taken away from the trade of Boston; yet her business prospered, and jokes were far more frequent than tears.

The number of firms burned out, according to estimates, on Summer Street, was a hundred and twelve; on Washington Street, thirty-nine; on Federal Street, ninety-two; on Devonshire Street, forty-one; on Otis Street, seventeen; on Franklin Street, forty; on High Street, eighteen; on Arch Street, seven; on Bussey Place, four; on Congress Street, ninety-seven; on Milk Street, seventy-four; on Pearl Street, a hundred and eighty-five; on Channing Street, three; on Kingston Street, three; on Broad Street, ten; on Winthrop Square, six; on Water Street, twenty-three; on Bath Street, three; on Liberty Square, eleven; on Lindall Street, five; on Hawley Street, fifteen; on Morton Place, five; on Kilby Street, thirty-six; on Purchase Street, six; on Chauncey Street, two.

We also give the number of firms by trades: Ale and beer, two; auctioneers, five; bagging, two; billiards, one; builders, two; books, two; boots and shoes, two hundred and twelve; blacksmith, one; bookbinders, three; bankers and brokers, six; belting, for; brushes, three; carpets, three; clothing, twenty-four; cloth-finishing, one; coopers, two; carpenters, nine; cotton, six; curriers, four; commission, forty-five; coal, six; corsets, one; cigars, four; confectioner, one; cutlery, two; carriages, three; crockery, eight; dry-goods, sixty-six; drain-pipe, one; drugs and medicines, chemicals and dye-stuffs, eleven; express-office, one; engraver, one; furniture, one; findings (boots and shoe), thirty-three; flour, one; furnishing-goods, eleven; fancy goods, twelve; furs, five; grocers, five; gas-fitting, one; gloves, two; glassware, four; glue, two; hides, eight; harness, one; hosiery, two; hats and caps, ten; hat-blocks, one; hardware, fourteen; hotels and eating-houses, six; hoop-skirts, two; hair, six; ivory, one; ink, three; importer, one; jewelry, plated ware, and clocks, thirteen; junk and waste, four; leather, a hundred and forty-five; lithographing, two; linens, three; locks, one; leather-binder, one; liquors, one; metals, steel, iron, and brass, nine; machinery and steam-engines, fourteen; millinery, eight; mercantile agency, one; needles, one; nails, one; oil, six; oil-carpeting, one; paper-boxes, three; photograph, one; paper-hangings, two; paper, paper-stock, and twines, twenty-six; patterns, one; paper-rulers, three; produce, one; palm-leaf, two; painters, two; publishers, six; patent-rights, one; printers and printers’ materials, twenty-three; plumbers, three; platers, two; periodicals, twenty-four; railroad-supplies, three; railroad-dépôt, one; ruffling, one; rubber-goods, five; roofer, one; sewing-machines, two; small wares, ten; shirts, cuffs, and collars, ten; stationery, six; soda-water apparatus, one; saddlery, five; straw-goods, six; saws, one; shoe-machinery, four; shoddy, one; sponges, One; spool-cotton, two; scales, two; screws, one; straps, one; suspenders, one; silk-goods, five; stoves, one; stable, one; storage, one; teamster, one; type-founders, three; trunks, one; tailors and tailors’ goods, eight; trimmings, seven; upholsterers, four; umbrellas, one; varnish, one; wool, twenty-one; woollens, twenty-two; wringers, one; wax-works, one; tags, one; yeast and essences, one: total, nine hundred and ninety-eight. To which may be added boarding-hoses, six; dwelling-houses, forty-three; lodging-houses, fourteen; tenement-houses, four: total, sixty-seven.

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