When downtown burned

Pearl and Milk streets after the fire

A fire that started in the basement of a dry-goods store at Summer and Kingston streets around 7 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1872 burned through the night and much of the next day - and brought firefighters, some by train, from as far away as New Haven and Worcester. The Great Fire of 1872 destroyed 776 buildings across 65 acres of downtown Boston. To this day, nobody knows exactly what started it.

The desperate fight was soon complicated by mobs of frenzied businessmen trying to salvage their wares and ledgers, looters eager to grab what they could, and hordes of curious onlookers. Since the fire was not threatening residential areas, many Bostonians viewed the blaze as an awesome spectacle. Gawkers — by some counts as many as 100,000, many of them drunk — added to the firefighters' struggle.

The Fire Department's response was also hampered by the flu - not among firefighters, but among the horses that would normally pull firefighting equipment. Inadequate water pressure and inadequate building codes - both things Fire Chief John Damrell had warned about - also contributed to the fire's spread.

The Boston Public Library has posted dozens of fire photos, including the post-fire scenes at Pearl and Milk streets (above) and near what we now call the Old South Meeting House:

The remains of the city, 1872

Posted under this Creative Commons license.



Free tagging: 



The destruction sucks, but these photos are incredible!

I suppose the answer is "it's complex"

Does anyone know why Boston, unlike many other cities in Europe and the US, did not fundamentally redesign the street layouts after this massive destruction? I know that some small lanes were aggregated to form things like Wintrhop Square, but the city seems to have been simply rebuilt on the medieval, narrow street platte without much consideration.

Boston nor its residents just

By on

Boston nor its residents just never measure up to your standards, do we?

If you have all of the answers, why aren't you leading the way with your superior knowledge?

Nice Drive By!


Surprising that you think it is a crime to know something about the natural history of cities and ask questions. In the cradle of liberty and academy, no less.

If you read the linked information, you would understand the question a bit better in the context of future fire prevention.

It's funny. In the attempt to

It's funny. In the attempt to make you look bad anonymous only reinforces the stereotypes about Bostonian about being defensive about the city. Personally, I would love to know the answer to your question.

But on topic, these pictures are amazing. So much devastation. It looks like Dresden or Hamburg post-war.

Even more fun

I'm sitting in the middle of where it was, thinking about those pictures ... almost unimaginable, and yet ...

The "piles of bricks" give an idea of how hot the firestorm got ... it destroyed the mortar. When a single masonry building burns, you don't ususally see that sort of utter and complete collapse.

I'm going to get that documentary out of the minuteman library system and watch it ... they built scale models of Boston before the fire for the purpose of showing how the fire spread. Maybe they discuss the rebuilding phase, too?

I love the linked maps of the spread of the fire. I'm betting it was a day with similar weather to the weather we have had recently. The wind was pretty clearly out of the south.

Some Street Changes

By on

Interestingly, from the link someone posted further down the thread:

The last map shows proposed street changes post fire most of which were implemented. Minor changes compared to other cities post-"great fire" but changes none the less.

considerable improvement in street layout

What I find surprising, though, is how narrow the streets still are after widening them. Hard to imagine how narrow they were before this. In areas of cities in Europe and the US that were built up around the same time, as well as more "planned" cities like DC, planners made for wider "carrier" streets and more overall open space, even where there were 5 storey buildings lining the streets and narrower lanes inbetween. This was partly out of spreading fire concerns, but more critically about sanitation concerns - room to layout sewers, water supplies, gas lines, and transport waste away. Even the layout of Lowell seems partly influenced by this sort of thinking.

I wonder what the political climate was ... it seems like a compromise in some ways, albeit a vast improvement. I suspect it was influenced less by the need to get in and out of the city - done by water and rail for the most part - and more by movement of goods from the water into the city.

I think you nailed it

I wonder what the political climate was ...

Just a guess, but I can imagine they had an exact copy of today's city council, Menino, BRA, Wilkerson, and keep adding to the list of your favorite political entities and personalities - just an 1879 version of it. It would be interesting to know.
Plus ca change, plus la meme chose.

One possible factor

London lost much of the Square Mile proper, plus chunks of the boroughs outside the walls. Chicago lost something like four square miles. Boston, otoh, lost about a tenth of a square mile, mas o menos. So while London and Chicago had vast swaths of destruction around which to implement large scale planning designs, Boston just didn't offer a very useful amount of land with which to work. There just wasn't room for a latter-day Christopher Wren to come in with a grand vision and untangle everything.

I heard that after the great

By on

I heard that after the great London fire, there were proposals to redesign the street network. But most property owners didn't want any changes, so street lines were kept where they were.

Realigning streets would have delayed rebuilding

By on

The biggest reason why they didn't attempt a realignment of Boston streets after the Great Fire of 1872 was that city officials feared such a realignment would delay the reconstruction. I believe there was actually some discussion of larger changes. But taking a few feet off the front of each property to widen a street was relatively easy to do. On the other hand, going through the courts to take properties by eminent domain, in order to lay out new streets, would have tied everything up for a very long time. Post Office Square -- the little triangle in front of the post office -- was laid out at this time; and Franklin Street was extended east of Federal Street. Other than the widenings, that was about it; new construction was pretty well underway within a few months.

(Winthrop Square was already there before the fire; the present Post Office Square Park -- south of Milk St. -- is a recent creation on a site that used to be occupied by buildings, and then a parking garage, until the 1980s.)

There are some new wayside

By on

There are some new wayside panels by the Atlantic Wharf building along the Harborwalk and one of them talks about this fire.