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Remembering Boston’s Great Fire of 1872

Historians commemorate the 150th anniversary of the massive blaze

Ruins of the Great Fire. Boston, MA November 9-10, 1872 From the Sailors' Home at Fort Hill. (Handout)Shorpy.com

Nov. 9 marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Fire of 1872, a devastating blaze that leveled a large chunk of downtown Boston, reducing city blocks to smoking, smoldering rubble.

The fire started in a basement on the corner of Summer and Kingston streets without much notice. But the flames quickly raced out of control, creating an inferno that swept across the city, destroying 776 buildings and turning 65 acres of urban landscape into a wasteland.

The first alarm was received at 7:24 p.m. from Box 52, located at Summer and Lincoln streets, according to the Boston Fire Historical Society. A police officer unlocked the box and pulled the alarm.

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Paul Christian, former commissioner of the Boston Fire Department, said that before the fire broke out, a janitor had gone down to the basement of 83 Summer St. and checked on the boiler that heated the building and powered the elevator.

“He thought everything was in order,” Christian said. “And he left.”

It’s possible a spark escaped from the boiler and came into contact with combustible materials, he said. The precise cause was never determined.

The fire then spread up the elevator shaft. It would rage for more than 12 hours.

An 1872 photograph, possibly by David W. Butterfield, of Pearl Street in Boston following the Great Fire of 1872.Boston Public Library

Stephanie Schorow, author of “The Great Boston Fire,” credits Boston’s fire chief, John S. Damrell, for warning officials about the risk the city faced. The city had an inadequate water supply for firefighting and infrastructure improvements were badly needed. Wooden mansard roofs were fire hazards, he added.

“The disaster was predicted and could have been prevented, had his recommendations had been heeded,” Schorow said.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which killed about 300 people, Damrell went there for a first-hand look at the devastation. When he returned home, he recounted what he saw and what needed to be done to prevent a similar calamity from happening in Boston.

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“He came back and said, ‘This could happen here.’” she said. “It was a disaster foretold.”

Two Boston firefighters died in the blaze, but the overall number of deaths is unknown and estimates vary widely. Schorow said anywhere from 20 to 50 people died in the conflagration.

“We don’t know the exact number,” she said.

As the year pass, the devastating fire continues to fade from public consciousness.

“People don’t know about this fire,” she said. “People who walk through Downtown Crossing have no idea they’re walking on streets built on ash.”

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Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, author of “Inferno: The Great Boston Fire of 1872″ will host a presentation and book signing on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. at the G.A.R. Hall in Scituate. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online at scituatehistoricalsociety.org

Stephanie Schorow will give a talk about the Great Boston Fire of 1872 at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square at 6 p.m. on Nov. 9. For more information click here.

On Nov. 10 at 6 p.m. she will give a talk abut the fire for the Massachusetts Historical Society. This is a hybrid event. Admission is $10 for the in-person event and there’s no charge for virtual attendees or Card to Culture participants (EBT, WIC, and ConnectorCare). MHS members can attend for free. The in-person reception starts at 5:30 and the program begins at 6 p.m. For more information click here.

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On Nov. 12 she will give an illustrated lecture on the Great Boston Fire of 1872 at 1 p.m. at the Waterworks Museum. at 2450 Beacon St. in Boston.

Paul Christian, former commissioner of the Boston Fire Department, will talk about the Great Fire of 1872 at a banquet at Florian Hall in Dorchester on Nov. 18. The event is being held by the Box 52 Association and tickets must be purchased in advance. For more information, visit box52.org.


Great Fire at Boston, Nathaniel Currier & James Ives, Hand-colored lithograph, 1872 (Springfield Museums) Springfield Museums



Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.