Friday, November 9, 2012

I Saw the Flags of Havoc Fly

I seem to write a lot about Bad Things in History when approaching an anniversary of a Bad Thing, so let's talk about a Really Bad Thing that happened in Boston on November 9th, 1872.

The green part is Boston, 1772.
The extra lines are filled-in Boston, 1880.
Most of Boston's geography is manufactured. Back in John Adams's time, the city (actually it was called the Town of Boston then) was a spit of land straddling two bays - - a peninsula (the Shawmut Peninsula) isolated by a salty tidal moat. To satisfy the loud demand for additional real estate, the town fathers shaved off the tops of Mount Vernon, Pemberton, and Beacon Hills and pushed all the gravel and soil into the harbor. The rearrangement of the hillsides created what's now Haymarket Square and the Atlantic Avenue harbor area.

Despite all these experiments with manufactured real estate,  building space remained at a premium. Stores and houses were pressed cheek-by-jowl in the downtown area, with buildings four and five floors tall cropping up in the densest part of town - the area closest to Atlantic Avenue. By the mid-1800's, real estate developers crammed almost three thousand new structures into the teeming city, using slap-dash methods to build the cheapest buildings as quickly as possible. Although the city government passed dozens of building codes to prevent fire and pestilence, there was no municipal inspection agency created to enforce such laws.

Adding to the city's woes, Boston's entire infrastructure was rapidly outstripped by the increasing demands for city services. A puny water distribution network, poor sewers, and understaffed volunteer fire departments made the city a health and safety time bomb. Fixes were haphazard, mostly band-aid solutions to solve immediate problems rather than implementing a structural redesign. Boston's Fire Chief, John Damrell, fought for new water mains in the densest part of the city, but was rebuffed by politicians seeking more vote-catching ways of spending city funds.

Arson was a huge problem. Insurance underwriting was in its infancy, and failing businesses could easily over-insure their properties, burn their edifices to the ground, and collect a hefty return on the ashes.

83-87 Summer St, where the fire began.
Note the steep, fire-friendly Mansard roof.

All these splintered, systemic troubles set the stage for the disaster that began on night of November 9th, 1872. Just after 7:20pm, a fire ignited in the basement of a warehouse at 83-87 Summer St. Within minutes, the flames engulfed the building and spread to nearby stores and warehouses. The fire spread across downtown rooftops due to an unfortunate combination of architecture and taxation: first, the roofs were tall wooden Mansard-style structures that acted as giant flues, lifting necessary oxygen into the flames; and second, the attics of these commercial buildings were filled with crates of hoop skirts, top hats, gloves, and linens, owing to a tax loophole where store inventories kept in attics were not taxed by the city. The necessary ingredients of heat, fuel, and oxygen made for a rapid spread of the flames through the middle of Boston's commercial district.

Other combinations of poor planning and simple bad luck made the fire uncontainable. A bout of horse flu crippled the draft livery of Boston's fire departments. Steam pump wagons were hauled through the cobblestone streets by teams of firemen, delaying any start to fighting the fire by almost an hour after the first alarm. The first alarms, by the way, were already delayed because the Boston Fire Department padlocked public fire alarms to prevent prank calls by the locals.

When the pumps were attached to the hydrants, a new difficulty arose: the ancient water mains were too narrow to provide enough water for the pumps to reach the upper floors of the downtown buildings. Although crews could soak the lower floors, the fires continued to spread through downtown Boston all evening.

Spectators clogged the streets as the fire continued to spread, blocking the efforts of the Boston firefighters. Reinforcements of firemen and equipment arrived by train throughout the night from as far away as Maine and Vermont. Unfortunately, the trains brought out-of-town spectators, too, which turned the blazing scene into an epic panorama of firefighting and looting. The out-of-state firemen discovered to their dismay that Boston's haphazard installation of hydrants made it almost impossible to find hoses that were compatible with the hydrant couplings. Connecticut pump units were parked along the harborside, unable to draw any water from Boston's mains.

1872 Boston looked like
1865 Richmond.
With the fire still beyond control of the Fire Department, residents petitioned the Mayor to take a gamble on stopping the fire with drastic measures: namely, blowing up a line of buildings on Washington St. to act as a firewall against the rest of the city.  Both the mayor and the Fire Chief objected to this course of action, suggesting that the demolitions would do little to stop the fire. Building owners tried the gunpowder approach anyway, with mixed results. Some buildings exploded to splinters and brick dust, others merely lost a few windows. Ultimately, the demolition of the buildings played no part in stopping the fire.

By the time the fire was contain the next morning, more than 65 acres of prime downtown Boston real estate had been destroyed. Seven hundred seventy six buildings were no more. The fire caused an estimated $75 million (in 1872 dollars) in loss and damages.

Thirty dead, 776 buildings gone.
Fire Chief Damrell, despite his campaign for better fire prevention policies, lost his job and was replaced by a Board of Fire Commissioners. In an ironic twist, Damrell was appointed head of the new Board of Building Inspectors.

Surveying the damage the morning after the fire, the poet (and Chief Anatomy Professor at Harvard Medical School) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was moved to write a few lines about the devastation he saw from his vantage point on Beacon Hill:

While far along the eastern sky
I saw the flags of Havoc fly,
As if his forces would assault
The sovereign of the starry vault
And hurl Him back the burning rain
That seared the cities of the plain,
I read as on a crimson page
The words of Israel's sceptred sage:--

"For riches make them wings, and they
Do as an eagle fly away."


The city rebuilt, although a few immediate changes to the downtown district. Some streets, such as Washington and federal Street, were made wider to reduce the chance of future building fires jumping intersections. Most of the replacement buildings, though, were built with few firewalls can remain pressed up against each other in the narrow streets of Boston. It would be nearly 25 years until downtown Boston was refitted with 36 inch water mains as a standard throughout the city.




Unfortunately for Boston, the city never really learned important lessons from its largest fire. More than 70 years later, Boston would suffer again from a calamitous fire, caused by both a lack of safety and a lack of foresight. But that's a story for another post.

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