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The night the shoe factory burned

Today is the anniversary of the Thomas G. Plant Shoe Factory fire in 1976, which completely destroyed what had once been the world's largest shoe factory, along Centre Street in Jackson Square. The Jamaica Plain Historical Society recounts the fire, started, as were so many other fires then in JP and the Fenway, by arsonists, who first disabled the complex's sprinklers, then set multiple fires in what had been converted from a factory into the home of multiple small businesses - and residents.

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Comments

This is before my time in Boston, what was the story with the arson? Was it systemic?

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I don't know about JP, but in the Fenway, it was landlords figuring they could make out on the insurance.

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Documentary that was produced about a decade ago about it: https://vimeo.com/144316089

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I'd never seen/heard of Burning Greed. I was well aware of the Symphony road fires having lived there in early 80s but what a great documentary. Sickening to think about, but we need to be reminded.

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Went from a blue collar family neighborhood to it current hipster roots.

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nm

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I'm just boggled this place wasn't the Thomas G. Plant Shoe Plant.

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Too soon.

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Read "The Rat on Fire" by George V. Higgins – novel based on facts regarding the Symphony Road arson fires in the 1970s.

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There were many fires back in those days, so much so that the Boston Fire Department commissioned a special area that was known as the Special Services District. Officially it was District 13. It was made up of sections of the city where Fire Districts 5 (now 4) in the Roxbury-Fenway area, Dist. 9 in the Roxbury-Jamaica Plain area, and Dist. 8 from parts of Roxbury and Dorchester meet, intersected in a small triangle area. It was commanded by the Special Services District Chief, but rather than calling it Car 13, the radio calls referred to it as the "SS Car." Fires in that geographical area would see the SS Chief and the fire district chief, whose district overlapped that area, would respond. Most all fires were multiple alarms.

At the time of the shoe factory fire I was young and was with a small volunteer first responder group. Several of us were Red Cross instructors and taught classes in Advanced First Aid and Emergency Care as well as CPR. This included things such as water rescue and child birth as well. At the time this was the training that most ambulance operators were getting before EMT and Paramedic training became the norm.

We set out to the fire after several consecutive alarms were sounded and eventually made it to the rear-left side of the building on land that was generally vacant at the time. It was clear to us that no amount of water was going to put this fire out easily. That evening it was cool to cold and there was a light rain shower coming down. However in the vicinity of the fire it was not raining because the fire was creating its own updraft causing the rain to be pushed aside. At one point the fire was shooting large firebrands into the air which were then raining down around the area due to the artificial convection current from the fire. Thankfully the rain was beneficial to area roofs and porches otherwise things would have been much worse. At one point I ran over to a spectator and pulled his woolen hat off his head because a firebrand had drifted and landed on it setting the hat ablaze. He was thankful, and now out a hat.

As the firebrands increased we sought shelter on the back step of one of BFD's pumper trucks that was in the vacant lot pumping furiously. In those days BFD firefighters were still riding to fires on the back steps of a pumper and holding onto a strap so they would not fall off. BFD had built in a Plexiglas weather shield over the back step and that provided us shelter from what was essentially raining fire.

Once the firebrands died down enough we moved to the front of the building on Centre Street and observed that heavy black and gray smoke was "pillowing" out the front windows which looked a lot like black cotton balls puffing out. We knew from experience that heavy fire would soon blow out of those windows once it got enough air, so we moved back a little. Then the building's own weather caused a sudden downdraft and that black smoke and gas fell on all of us. It was rather hot and somewhat sweet smelling and tasting. That was my last memory. I woke up on the street with an oxygen mask on me because the smoke had rendered me unconscious in less than a few seconds. This is why smoke is dangerous. You have seconds.

We eventually moved back to a safer location, and when the fire was essentially spent and some areas of the building had caved in, we packed up and went home after several hours on site.

The building required attention from fire crews for several days after to make sure all of the hot spots were out, with the building eventually going up for demolition. The Stop and Shop market on Centre Street is about where that building once stood.

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WOW that sounds intense. Thank you for the first hand account. Craziness.

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That knit cap was not wool or it had plenty of non-wool fiber content.

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You can tour Plant's house in NH. It's the Castle in the Clouds. Not so over-the-top as a Newport mansion, it's interesting.

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There was a brewery onsite years ago. I think it's gone now. That must have been my first of very many brewery tours.

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Somewhere I once read that this had been the largest building in the US at some point in time. I don't know if that's true or not, and I don't recall the original source.

Over the years the building got divided up into lots of individual rooms, which were rented out to a variety of tenants, mostly industrial. In the mid 1970s, artists started renting spaces for studios. Some of the artists lived there; others did not. The live-in uses were illegal, but everyone looked the other way. There were still a lot of industrial tenants, too.

Luckily everyone got out safely that night, perhaps because the fire started early -- around 9:30, I think.

A few months before the fire they held an open studio event. I was invited by a friend, who knew one of the artists, and we got a private tour of the building.

Decades earlier, several rooms at the back of the building, on an upper floor, had been rented to a company that made mass-produced plaster cast sculptures. The business was long gone, but their inventory was left behind. There must have been hundreds of plaster reproductions, from table-top size to full-scale equestrian sculptures. Some were intact, others broken. All were unpainted, a brilliant (but dusty) white. Very eerie!

After the fire, I read that one of the industrial tenants was doing some sort of oil recycling, with large vats of petroleum products, which obviously fueled the fire. Another illegal use, extremely hazardous, with everyone again looking the other way.

The Cambridge Fire Department sent apparatus to the blaze, and this week they posted some good photos on Twitter:
https://twitter.com/CambridgeMAFire/status/1488536450274635779

When the fire started in the evening, it was quite warm for the season. But overnight the weather turned into a bitter freeze, near 0 F. Some of the fire apparatus got encased in ice, a foot thick or more. If you search online, you should be able to find photos of that.

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