Boston · Fire · Firefighters

November 9, 1872–Great Boston Fire

Fire is one of life’s greatest destroyers. I like to think in our day and age, that we’d never run into a situation where something would burn down. We have phones. We have fire stations so close! We have phenomenal fire fighting teams. It couldn’t happen. Not today.

The fact is, fire is too strong. It is stopped a LOT of the time. But it also wins a LOT of the time.

If all the conditions are just right, it’s hopeless. Can you imagine being the expert firefighter, sitting there, head down –in the universal gesture of defeat?

9/11 Firefighter Defeated

On that note, things weren’t always as “ideal” as they are today, for such great fire-fighting conditions.

On November 9, 1872, a fire started in Boston that ended up destroying oh-so-many buildings and killing 14 people. This was such a devastating catastrophe.

Lithograph of the Great Boston Fire of 1872.

The fire started in the basement of a warehouse. Because many of the buildings were made of wood–not the weird mix of man-made materials we use today–the fire spread at a devastating speed to many, many buildings.

The thing is–it wasn’t just that Boston was basically a tinderbox. Because it was. However, it ended up being the perfect storm of events. They hadn’t seen fires this big before! They didn’t know what they didn’t know. And item #1 on this list is that they didn’t have enough water available to conquer a blaze of this magnitude. Firefighters from as far away as Maine rushed to help, to no avail.

Engine 7's steam pumper on Arch Street at the Great Boston Fire of 1872.

According to an article I read (, they discovered their hydrant system was sub-par because none of their fire-fighting practices were standardized. Add to that–their fire engines were horse-drawn and there was a sickness going through the city’s horses. They struggled to get enough healthy horses to get the engines to the fires. The buildings were crowded–there weren’t really building codes back then, surprise!–so getting the water to different parts of them proved next to impossible as well.

A view of the destruction of the Great Boston Fire of 1872.

In the aftermath of this disaster, many changes were made. Having faced down the worst of the worst, it was clear they needed to establish preventative measures. Fire laws and inspection systems were put in place proactively. Many of the measures we have in place today–from building materials, hydrant and water standards, cooperation between departments, and building codes can be traced back to what was learned in this tragedy. Not all of them, but many of them anyway.

Unfortunately, the saying “out of tragedy comes great things” proved to be all too true for the city of Boston.



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