Great Boston Fire of 1872

Ruins left by the fire

The Great Boston Fire of 1872 was Boston's largest fire, and still ranks as one of the most costly fire-related property losses in American history. The conflagration began at 7:20 p.m. on November 9, 1872, in the basement of a commercial warehouse at 83–87 Summer Street.[1] The fire was finally contained 12 hours later, after it had consumed about 65 acres (26 ha) of Boston's downtown, 776 buildings and much of the financial district, and caused $73.5 million in damage (equivalent to $1.358 billion in 2016).[2][3] The destruction to the buildings was valued at $13.5 million and the personal property loss was valued at $60 million.[1] Despite these devastations, only thirteen people died in the inferno, including two Boston firemen.[4]

Underlying causes

Franklin St. before and after the Great Boston Fire of 1872

Building practices

In 1872, there was no strictly enforced building code in Boston. The streets were narrow and the buildings were close together. Many of the buildings were too tall for fire ladders to reach the upper levels, and the pressure from the fire hoses was often insufficient to extinguish flames on the roofs of the buildings. Thus, the fire could spread from rooftop to rooftop, and across narrow streets. Many of the affected buildings were made of brick and stone, but with wooden framing.[1] Also, wooden mansard roofs were a common architectural trend of the time period. The steep pitch of a mansard roof allows for more storage in the upper levels of a building. However, these roofs are flammable due to their wooden construction. Additionally, the warehouses of downtown Boston commonly stored dry materials in the eaves of the roofs, increasing the flammability. Merchandise stored in the attics of warehouses was not considered taxable inventory.[5]


Building owners in Boston had few incentives to implement fire-safety measures. Buildings were often insured above value or at full value. Arson to gain insurance money was not uncommon.[4]

Fire alarm boxes

A fire alarm box in San Francisco, CA

In 1852, Boston became the first city in the world to install telegraph-based fire alarm boxes.[6] The boxes served as a fire warning system. If the lever inside of the alarm box was pulled, the fire department was notified, and the alarm could be traced back to the box via a coordinate system so that firefighters were dispatched to the correct location. All of the fire alarm boxes were kept locked from the system's installation in 1852 until after the Great Fire of 1872 to prevent false alarms. A few citizens in each area of Boston were given a key to the boxes, and all other citizens had to report fires to the key-holders who could then alert the fire department.[7] In 1872, witnesses watched the fire spread before the key-holder of the area was located and able to unlock the alarm box to alert the Boston Fire Department. Twenty minutes after the fire was first noticed, firefighters arrived on the scene.[1]

Water infrastructure

John Damrell, Boston Fire Department's chief engineer at the time, had told Boston officials that the existing water infrastructure was inadequate. He was told not to "magnify the needs of his department" after requesting funding for water infrastructure repairs.[8] The existing water main pipelines were old and leaky, causing the pressure in the pipes to be lower than acceptable. The lack of pressure was so severe that the pipes could not produce enough force to reach the top floors and roofs of newer buildings.[5] The number of hydrants throughout the city was insufficient to adequately cover the surrounding buildings. As the fire spread, firefighters struggled to find hydrants with adequate water pressure. Additionally, the fire hydrant couplings were not standardized within Boston making it more difficult for firefighters to connect their hoses and related equipment.

Horse sickness

Horses were used by the Boston fire department to pull fire engines, hoses, and ladders. At the time of the 1872 fire in early November, the northeast United States was experiencing an epizootic flu that affected and weakened the horses. When Damrell heard of the horse sickness he preemptively hired an additional 500 men to replace the horsepower that would typically haul the engines and other equipment to the sites of fires.[2] After the fire, the city commission in charge of investigating the fire concluded that the response time of the fire department was only delayed by a few minutes in the absence of the horses.

Similarities to Great Chicago Fire

In 1871, Chicago suffered massive destruction and an estimated 300 casualties due to a massive fire. Damrell, along with fire chiefs from various large cities, traveled to Chicago after the fire in an attempt to learn from the city’s mistakes. Like Boston, Chicago buildings were made primarily of wood and building codes were not enforced, making the densely developed neighborhoods susceptible to fire. General Phil Sheridan, in charge of military relief in Chicago post-fire, did not condemn the city's use of gunpowder to blow up buildings to create firebreaks. In theory, a firebreak creates a gap in flammable material that serves as a barrier where the fire will run out of "fuel" to spread any further. However, many fire chiefs from Southern cities were firmly opposed to gunpowder-created firebreaks after having seen the destruction they caused in the Civil War.[9] Damrell returned to Boston and continued to request funding for improved water infrastructure and fire equipment.[10]