It’s almost impossible to imagine a fire of this magnitude, which began on November 9th, 1872.  More than 770 buildings burned in less than 20 hours, most of them commercial buildings that were previously thought to be fire-proof.  Several problems contributed to fighting the fire – the flu that had stricken most of the horses used to pull the fire engines, the attempts to reduce the fire load by exploding kegs of gunpowder inside of buildings, an inadequate water supply, and the crowds of spectators and looters filling the streets.

Back in those days, building codes were rarely enforced, and many of the buildings were too tall to reach with ladders and hoses, with a large fuel load of stored goods in the attic under the wooden roof.  The damage from this fire covered 65 acres and was estimated at a value of $75,000,000 (well over $1 billion in today’s dollars).  Between 20 and 30 people were killed, depending on which account you read.

Photo: Boston Public Library (click to enlarge)

Many of the buildings were rebuilt within 2 years, and the rubble from the demolished buildings was dumped into the harbor to create Atlantic Avenue.  The city took this opportunity to widen several streets, and created the area known as Post Office Square.

There is a wealth of interesting information about this fire online, including photos, books, maps, and letters.  The Boston Public Library has a large collection of photos and illustrations of the fire’s aftermath on Flickr.  There’s even a 1-hour documentary available to order on DVD called Damrell’s Fire, in honor of Fire Chief John Damrell, who founded the National Association of Fire Engineers and later became Boston’s Inspector of Buildings.  He was also one of the leading proponents of the first National Model Building Code, published in 1905.

I ran across a history of building codes here, and I found the following example of an early building code (ca. 1780 BC)  interesting.

Code of Hammurabi:
229. If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
230. If it kills the son of the owner, the son of that builder shall be put to death.
231. If it kills a slave of the owner, then he shall pay, slave for slave, to the owner of the house.
232. If it ruins goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means.
233. If a builder builds a house for someone, even though he has not yet completed it; if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.

That about covers it, doesn’t it?  😉

Other Resources:
Boston Fire Historical Society
Audio Recording of Bruce Twickler
History of the Great Fire in Boston
New York Public Library Photo Gallery
Shorpy (photo)

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