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Great Fires of Boston

A guide to resources about devastating fires in Boston's history at the BPL and beyond.

November 9-10, 1872

The Great Fire at Boston, November 9th and 10th, 1872.
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Corner of Washington & Milk Streets
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One of the costliest urban fires in U.S. history, the Great Boston Fire of 1872 began at around 7:10pm in the basement of a dry goods store at the corner of Kingston and Summer Streets. Every available firefighter in Boston was dispatched to the blaze, with firefighters from numerous cities and towns in the area also assisting. The fire spread rapidly from building to building and took over 12 hours to bring under control. It was finally stopped at the corner of Washington and Milk Streets, due largely to an effort to save the Old South Meeting House.

Several factors are cited in contributing to the severity of the fire including: poorly enforced building codes allowing for the construction of faulty buildings using highly flammable material, the public’s lack of knowledge of the locations of or access to fire alarm boxes resulting in a delay of fire fighters’ response to the fire, old municipal water pipes with low water pressure and lack of properly functioning hydrants resulting in inadequate access to water to fight the blaze, gas lines being poorly constructed or maintained and not being shut off quickly resulting in gas feeding the flames and several structures to explode, and the use of gunpowder to demolish buildings in the hopes of creating a firebreak.

Killed: 13-20 (estimates vary), including 11 firefighters
Injured: at least 17 firefighters, civilian injuries are unknown
Buildings Destroyed: 776, comprising nearly 65 acres
Cost of Damages: approximately $75 million (over $1 billion today)
Cause: Officially undetermined. Beginning in the basement of 83-85 Summer Street, it was theorized to have been started by a stray spark.
Arrests: Several hundred for looting in the days afterward.
Effects: Despite residential areas being largely unaffected, many people were made homeless. Business districts were decimated, although they rebuilt quickly thanks to what some believed were overly-high insurance payouts. Several insurance companies went bankrupt as a result. Fire chief John Damrell was blamed for the devastation and lost his job, he went on to become a crusader for fire safety and the improvement of building codes to help prevent such disasters in the future. Building codes were strengthened, city loan and insurance laws were changed, and several streets were widened. Much of the rubble was dumped into the harbor to fill in Atlantic Avenue.


BPL Resources