|The green part is Boston, 1772.|
The extra lines are filled-in Boston, 1880.
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.
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|
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.|
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.