Great Boston Fire, November 1872
Many US cities had devastating fires throughout their history, such as the New York City fire of 1835 or the Chicago fire of 1871. The Great Fire of Boston began in the basement of a five-story warehouse on the evening of Saturday, November 9, 1872. When it was finally extinguished the next afternoon, 65 acres of buildings had been burned to the ground, with a total property loss of $60 million, equivalent to $1.1 billion today.
The City of Boston and its fire department were ill-equipped to deal with a blaze of this magnitude. First, water mains were barely adequate to provide sufficient water to fight fires in the commercial buildings of up to three stories in height, but in recent years, buildings of seven and eight stories were being built in Boston’s downtown. John S. Damrell, Boston’s fire chief, had pointed this out for years, but the city government chose not to spend money on upgrading their protection.
Second, many of the buildings had thin walls and iron girders, which are excellent conductors of heat, wooden elevator wells that could act as conduits for fire, and mansard roofs, which Chief Damrell called “elevated lumber yards.”
Finally, about two weeks before the fire, an equine flu epidemic put most of the horses used to pull the department’s engines out of action. Since no horses were available in the city, the chief issued drag ropes to all companies so the firemen could pull the engines themselves.
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