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On November 9, 1872, Boston had its most exciting experience since the famous Tea Party, over one hundred years before. The great fire which swept the industrial section of the city on that night devastated downtown Boston and destroyed 65 acres of the city.
No one seems to know how the fire started. The fire-alarm operator in the dome of City Hall had been engrossed in his paper. He was called from his seat by the clicking of his instruments registering an alarm, and when he lifted his eyes, he saw the light of the flames. He thereupon entered in his register an alarm from Box 52.
It was unfortunate that the fire broke out in this particular neighborhood, for fifty-two was known among the city firemen as a “bad box”. Not only was it located among buildings topped with wooden roofs and crowded with inflammable stocks, but the water supply in this vicinity was notoriously inadequate to meet the conditions imposed by a fire. The pipe had been large enough for hand-engine days, but by 1872 the six-inch pipe had been reduced to five inches by rust and was insufficient to feed the powerful steam engines with which the department was equipped.
The flames had been emerging from the upper floors of a dry goods house at Summer and Kingston Streets, where a large stock of cotton goods was stored. Before an engine could arrive, the fire had gone through the roof, and its extent had expanded so that sparks were flying in all directions.
Bad luck played a part in the calamity. The first instance had occurred some days before the great fire, when the horses which drew the fire engine came down with an incapacitating equine disease known as the “epizootic.” Few died, but they became so weak that they could not stand in their stalls. For the time being the engines had to be pulled to the scene of a fire by the citizens of Boston. This was a job they did not relish, not only because of its great tax on their physical strength, but because the long columns of men with the hose lines clattering at their heels were greeted with jeers, jibes, and laughter whenever they appeared on the crowded streets. But there were no jeers or laughter on the night of November 9.
Up ladders and over stairways the lines of hose were carried by the firemen, who were gasping in the thick smoke enveloping the upper stories. But again luck was against the firefighters. The inadequacy of the rusted pipe left almost no pressure in the nozzles. When an engine, maintaining with difficulty a single jet of water, was commandeered by a hose company with a second line, the force of the stream was dissipated and the two lines emitted only feeble spurts.
The antiquated fire regulations of Boston compounded the disaster. These called for a limited number of engines to leave their quarters on the first alarm, the reserve engines to wait for the second and third alarms before the entire downtown force went out. In this instance, the third alarm was not sounded until twenty minutes after the first, and the delay was catastrophic.
In less than two hours an entire square was in flames, and the retail, as well as the wholesale, section of the business district was doomed. Woolen houses, the shoe and leather-goods stores, the Hartford and Erie Depot, the wharves — all were gone. When the holocaust was finally at an end, 776 buildings had been consumed.
A few of the burnt-out merchants tried to add a touch of Yankee humor to their plight. Signs were posted on stores reading, “We have removed from this place;” “These damaged goods to be sold low and the building thrown in;” “Fish market; stock low in such d—— hot weather.” Another firm quoted, “In all things we suffer tribulation, but we are not distressed; we are sore pressed, but we are not destitute” (II Cor. 4 : 8).
A spectator saw President Charles Eliot of Harvard standing in the square, and it occurred to him that, with Harvard’s large investments in Boston real estate, Eliot could not be in a happy frame of mind.
Another wrote a member of his family: “Old Trinity Church seemed safe all night . . . She went at four in the morning . . . She burned majestically . . . she died in dignity. I did not know how much I liked the gloomy old thing until I saw her windows bursting and the flames running along the whole place.”
C. A. White was Boston’s best-known song writer, and when he struck off “Homeless Tonight, or Boston in Ashes,” there was a large and immediate demand for it by the public. It ran through several editions, and the picture of the two waifs fleeing the horrendous flames could be observed on many thousands of piano racks, not only in Boston but throughout the country. The tender words, the sentimental subject matter, and the illustrated cover of the song about the Boston fire were appealing to purchasers of sheet music:
Lone and weary thro’ the streets we wander,
For we have no place to lay our heads,
Not a friend on earth is left to shelter us,
For both our parents now are dead.
Poor mother died when we were both young,
Yet father made for us a home,
But now he’s killed by falling timbers,
And we are left here all alone.
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