Author(s): Stephanie Schorow. Published on November 3, 2021.

A ‘Splendid and Terrible Sight’

As wildfire losses draw comparisons to urban conflagrations of old, a new book, The Great Boston Fire: An Inferno That Nearly Incinerated the City, recounts the story of the landmark 1872 blaze. In this excerpt, author Stephanie Schorow guides us through the harrowing early moments of the fire.

This excerpt is reproduced here with the permission of Globe Pequot Press Inc., ©2022. For more information about the book and Globe Pequot Press, and to pre-order copies of The Great Boston Fire: An Inferno That Nearly Incinerated the City, visit the publisher at This story originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of NFPA Journal.

WHAT IF, in the space of two days, everything in the heart of Boston’s bustling commercial district disappeared? The cafés, the department stores, the restaurants, the theaters, the condos, the offices…the people. Gone. What if you emerged from the city’s subway to find what appeared to be a nuclear wasteland? Swaths of twisted wreckage, granite snapped into pieces like china, bricks piled as carelessly as the remains of a sandcastle gleefully demolished by a child. Among the ruined streets are odd bits of buildings—arches rising like remnants of the Roman Empire, the stripped-down bones of once-elegant structures—that leave no hint of the furnishing and merchandise once housed inside. The devastation goes on for blocks, covering a half-mile to Boston Harbor, where the tide laps the charred posts of once-bustling wharves.

The common term for this kind of fire is conflagration or firestorm or fire that creates its own wind, becoming a small hurricane of sparks and smoke. But let’s use the term that the politicians, pundits, and reporters used so lavishly and liberally in November of 1872: the “Fire Fiend.”

From November 9 to 11, 1872, the Fire Fiend ruled Boston. Igniting in a building at the corner of Kingston and Summer streets, fire rampaged through the city, scorching nearly 65 acres and obliterating 776 buildings. A quickly overwhelmed Boston firefighting force called for help, and companies from surrounding communities, as well as from Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine, rushed in, bringing in fire engines by train as needed. The Fire Fiend took out warehouses, factories, stores, and apartments. It destroyed the Trinity Church and two newspaper offices. It nearly destroyed the Old South Meeting House and burned to within three blocks of City Hall. It left thousands homeless or out of work, and it left others financially ruined. The assessed value of the destroyed properties was nearly $13.5 million, and personal property loss totaled $60 million—losses equal to about $1.6 billion today. It remains one of the most expensive fires per acre in American history.

At least 11 firefighters and one former firefighter died fighting the blaze. The total number of deaths is difficult to determine, which was not uncommon in large fires of the 19th century, but likely totaled 20 to 25. That the toll was not higher is surprising, given not only the extent of the destruction but also the crowds of people who thronged the fiery streets to retrieve property or watch the mesmerizing Fiend rising over the skyline.

Bostonians witnessed their city burn with horrified awe. In her diary, Little Women author Louisa May Alcott described the fire as a “very splendid and terrible sight.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the poet and physician, saw the fire “dissolve the great high buildings which seem to melt away in it.” Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, himself a fire buff, found it “a sad, wonderful, and fascinating sight to see the ruins from Washington street, extending from Summer to Milk streets, thus sweeping broadly to the water.”

Left: John Damrell, chief engineer of the Boston Fire Department, whose warnings of a conflagration went unheeded. Right: Little Women author Louisa May Alcott described the fire as a “splendid and terrible sight.”

The Fire Fiend was finally halted by an effort involving firefighters from across New England. Boston reeled and the nation mourned as headlines around the country blared the news. Perhaps the most telling of all declarations was this: “SECOND CHICAGO.”

That’s because the country had seen this before, less than 11 months prior. From October 8 to 10, 1871, a conflagration consumed two-thirds of the city of Chicago, burning 2,000 acres and destroying 17,500 buildings. An estimated 300 people lost their lives. Supposedly the fire started when a cow kicked over a lantern; that tale is doubtful, but the myth remains powerful, underscoring an unsettling truth that widespread devastation can result from a single careless event.

News of the fire sent a shudder through urban firefighters around the United States, including the chief of the Boston Fire Department, John S. Damrell. Soon after the Chicago Fire, Damrell boarded a train to Illinois to review the damage with fire officials and General Philip Sheridan, the Civil War hero who played a significant role directing fire efforts. What Damrell learned chilled him. Before his trip to Chicago, he knew Boston’s growth had far outstripped its firefighters’ ability to keep the city safe. Now, he believed, time was running out.

He returned from Chicago and redoubled his efforts to convince Boston city officials that they were sitting on a tinderbox. He renewed his call for replacing the aging water mains in the downtown to provide enough pressure for water to reach the tops of the tall buildings in the district. He advocated for more fire houses downtown, a fire boat, and a prohibition against building with wooden Mansard roofs, a popular architectural embellishment. He also sought new building codes and better code enforcement. Most of his recommendations were ignored.

This, then, is the real issue of the Great Boston Fire of 1872. All that destruction was a disaster foretold, a tragedy largely caused not by capricious nature or an unfathomable deity, but by the determined ignorance of men who, like far too many figures in history, supposed nothing would go wrong. It is a lesson in hubris and in the courage of those who doggedly, determinedly, do what they know is right despite criticism and disgrace.

November 9, 1872, has been rapturously described by contemporary chroniclers as a lovely autumn day in Boston, with mild temperatures, a light breeze, clear and exhilarating air, a cloudless sky, a rosy sunset, and a brilliant full moon. Was the day that the Great Fire began as stunningly beautiful as those writers would have us believe? Or like any Hollywood screenwriter, did they wish to paint a calm portrait of Pleasantville, USA, before the monsters began to roll in?

The truth is that even if that Saturday were a nice autumn evening, Boston was not exactly resting easy. Many of the city’s horses were sick from a mysterious equine flu spreading through the country that made them unfit for work. The city’s steam fire engines were pulled by horses, and a contingency plan had been set up: men would pull the engines themselves in a throwback to a time of hand-pumped machines, and the number of engines downtown available to respond to first and second alarms was reduced to ensure other parts of the city would have coverage. To Damrell and his engineers, it was the best they could do under the circumstances.

Downtown on East Street, home to Engine Company 7, Foreman Daniel Marden and Engineman Charles Riley were on duty. “Looks like it will be a dull night,” Marden remarked to Riley, who was cutting off a plug of chewing tobacco. Just over the Charles River, in Charlestown, police officers on duty at the Prison Point drawbridge noticed a glow in the sky shortly after 7 p.m. “Must be a fire in Boston," one of them casually remarked.

The Boston Press Association’s annual meeting was being held that night. Among the guests were two young reporters delighted at the chance to mix with the grand old men (and, yes, they were all men) of the city’s half-dozen daily newspapers, including the upstart Boston Globe, which had just launched in March of that year. Sylvester Baxter, a 22-year-old reporter for the Boston Daily Advertiser, and his fellow scribe, Stephen O’Meara, barely 18, were thrilled to be invited.

The ink-stained class gathered at the Revere House, a hotel on Bowdoin Street just north of Beacon Hill and almost under the shadow of the Commonwealth’s gold-topped State House. Speeches, poems, skits, stories, quips, and puns circled the room. The men heard fire bells ring in the distance, but fire bells were always ringing, so they continued their dining. On hand was Patrick Donahoe, the publisher of Boston’s Catholic newspaper, The Pilot. He was extremely proud of the fine new building that housed The Pilot and had demanded the removal of a fire hydrant at Franklin and Hawley streets because—we will speculate—it distracted from the imposing façade or created too much activity in the area. He would watch his building burn to the ground later that night. Donahoe rose at the conclusion of the dinner to give his annual rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

As Donahoe finished, a reporter burst in. “Gentlemen, are you aware that the whole city is in flames?” he called out.

Everyone dashed for the door. Outside, a terrible glare lit the streets with a brightness as intense as daylight, while a crimson glow veiled the stars overhead. The sullen granite walls of the nearby gothic Bowdoin Square Baptist Church were now bathed in golden light. The young reporters Baxter and O’Meara could see sheets of flame rising to the left of Beacon Hill. “Our young hearts fairly jumped to our throats,” Baxter would recall decades later. The pair sprinted in the direction of the glowing sky. Baxter was about to cover the story of a lifetime.

A map showing the spread of the fire over the course of about 22 hours. Firefighting crews from across New England rushed to Boston to battle the fire, in some cases transporting fire engines to the city by train.

There are many mysteries associated with the 1872 fire, but there’s little doubt about the ignition point: the Tebbetts Building, a six-year-old structure at 83–85 Summer Street at the corner of Kingston Street. The five-story building, owned by businessman Seman Klous, housed a wholesale dry goods business and a small clothing factory. A small steam engine in the rear of the basement provided heat and power to run an elevator, which ran from the basement to the top floor. Built about 1866, the building was topped by a Mansard roof and cornices made from wood because, as the architect John R. Hall would later explain, using wood saved construction costs. By 7 p.m., the owners of the businesses located in the building had left for the day. The maintenance man, William Blaney, had checked the furnace and gas before departing. All would later say everything was in perfect order when they left the building.

Alas for doggerel writers, there was no bovine perpetrator to blame for what happened next. Subsequent investigation showed that likely something in the basement caught fire, and heat rose up the wooden elevator shaft to the ceiling under the handsome but combustible Mansard roof. No one will know for sure what caused that initial spark. The rest is a matter of record.

A little after 7 p.m., Major Augustine Sanderson, an Army veteran and a clerk at Boston’s Custom House, was walking on Washington Street toward Winter Street. He stopped to chat with an acquaintance, John S. Holmes, a lawyer; the men almost immediately saw smoke rising about four blocks away on Summer Street. “There must be a fire,” Holmes cried. The two ran down Summer Street and, as they neared Kingston Street, they started shouting, “Fire, fire!” Sanderson was astonished that no one else was “hallooing fire,” since a half-dozen people seemed to be watching the blaze. Through the building’s windows, Holmes could see a globe of fire in the basement. Flames were bursting out of the building’s elegant Mansard roof; to Sanderson they seemed to burn with a fierce glee. The fire appeared to be spreading across a passageway to the roof of another building at its rear on Kingston Street. Holmes was mesmerized by the shocking speed of the blaze; the flames traveled bizarrely fast, almost at right angles, as if by direction, human or divine.

At that time, fire alarm boxes were kept locked to prevent false alarms, and police and nearby “responsible” persons had keys. Police officer John M. Page of Station Number Four was walking his nightly beat when he heard shouts of “fire.” Peering down Summer Street, he saw flames staining the night sky with streaks of red and orange. Although a building blocked his full view of the fire, he knew immediately this was a serious burn. He was near Alarm Box 52, at the intersection of Summer, Lincoln, and Bedford streets. He quickly opened the box with his key, cranked the handle inside, and heard a welcoming ticking sound indicating that the alarm had been sent.

About a mile away on School Street, Charles Stearns, the officer on duty at the fire alarm headquarters atop Boston City Hall, was reading a newspaper when he noticed a glow in the dark city streets. He was preparing to trigger the striking of the city’s bells when the signal from Box 52 came in. Stearns triggered the bells: five tolls, a pause, followed by two tolls, indicating fire in the area of Box 52. The time was 7:24 p.m. He waited, watching the glow grow brighter, and another signal arrived. At 7:29 p.m., he triggered the second alarm to call in additional men. By that time, however, the fire likely had been burning for 45 minutes to an hour.

At the Engine Company 7 firehouse, Foreman Marden’s optimistic forecast for the evening vanished like smoke as someone rang the doorbell, yelling, “Fire on Bedford Street!” Marden, Riley, and other men on call, plus volunteers from the street, grabbed the draglines and hauled the 8,970-pound Amoskeag steam engine and hose reel the four or five blocks to the burning Tebbetts Building, arriving in about two minutes. Marden could see right away that his men faced a dangerous fire. The hose was quickly attached to a hydrant on Bedford Street and then plugged into the steamer, its coal-fired engine already churning. The men pointed a stream of water toward the building, but soon shifted their attention to a nearby building that was smoking; Marden could see that the Summer Street building was gone and he wanted to focus on limiting the fire’s spread. He could also see the streams from Engine 7, while strong, did not reach the top of the building. Even so, firefighters continued to attack the fire as best they could.

About a minute after Engine 7 arrived, Hose Company 2, the Union, appeared, its 3,080-pound Hunneman hose reel pulled by men from its station at 85 Hudson Street, over a quarter of a mile away. Foreman Nathan S. Brown plugged the hose into a hydrant at Bedford and Kingston streets; grabbing the nozzle, or “pipe,” he dragged the hose toward the Summer Street building, planning to send a stream of water into the cellar. But the fire scene was already getting out of control. Burning debris flew through the air; one piece struck a fireman and knocked off his hat. Brown had to turn around and wet the hose behind him to keep it from catching fire from the flying sparks. A 12-year veteran of the fire department, Brown had never seen a fire move so quickly; it seemed to run like lightning from window to window.

Engine 4 arrived about 7:30 p.m. and plugged into a hydrant near Kingston and Summer streets. Now streams were hitting the Tebbetts Building from several sides, but it made no difference; water seemed to make no impression on the flames, and simply turned to steam. Bits of burning clothing, particularly flaming hoop skirts, were driven upward by the heat. The very bones of the building were coming apart. Many of the buildings in downtown Boston were built of granite, seemingly stern stuff. But the material actually contains pockets of moisture, and when superheated the water seeks escape and can cause the granite to explode. Hot chunks of granite were sailing skyward, joining the burning debris that was raining down on firefighters. The fire continued to spread.

Chief Engineer John Damrell was in his home on Beacon Hill when he heard the fire bells ring for Box 52. He knew the location; it was considered a “bad box,” one situated in the area of downtown that he was most concerned about. Grabbing his helmet, he raced across the Boston Common; when he came to Winter Street, he could see his nightmare coming true. The Tebbetts Building was blazing from the basement to the roof, as if it were one vast furnace. In his decades of firefighting, Damrell had never seen anything like this.

To his great relief, he saw that his companies were already at work. Damrell called over one of his men and told him to strike the third alarm. At the alarm headquarters, Charles Stearns noted the time, 7:34 p.m., and set the fire bells ringing. Stearns also struck a fourth alarm, on his own volition, at 7:45 p.m., to call in all fire companies.

CITY IN RUINS Local photographers rushed to the scene of the fire to record the destruction. Nearly 800 buildings were destroyed in the heart of Boston’s commercial district, making the blaze one of the costliest per-acre fires in American history.

Damrell saw foreman Brown in an alleyway behind the Tebbetts Building and ordered him to take his line into an adjoining building, which was already burning. Brown ran with the hose to the building’s third floor to get water on the windowsills and frames that were covered with flames. He and his men stayed until their water was cut off; another engine had plugged into their hydrant and the pressure dropped. “Get out of the building!” came the command, and Brown complied. Within 10 minutes the walls of the Tebbetts Building collapsed, soon followed by those of the building Brown had just vacated.

Summer Street was now so hot that firefighters had to lie in the gutters, directing their water streams from behind makeshift fire shields and barriers of wet crates. Coming upon the scene was Thomas Leighton Jenks, a member of the Board of Aldermen, who called out to Damrell, with a kind of nervous irony, “Captain, you have got a fearful fire!” Damrell’s reply was blunt: “Yes, and the city is doomed; this fire will go to the water, for l have not sufficient force at my command to stay its progress.”

“Do you mean what you say?” Jenks said, caught off guard.

“I do, and know whereof I speak,” Damrell responded.

Damrell ordered Jenks to go to the Union Telegraph Office and request help from every city and town within 50 miles of Boston. Damrell was seeing the Chicago fire unfold in front of him. From the speed and ferocity of what was fast becoming a firestorm, he knew the city’s fate depended on responding with everything that could be mustered. He also knew that commanding such an effort would require every bit of his firefighting knowledge. He did not yet know that his every action, and every twist and turn of the next 22 hours, would be scrutinized, critiqued, and fiercely debated. 

STEPHANIE SCHOROW is a Boston-based writer and the author of Boston on Fire: A History of Fires and Firefighting in Boston. Her new book, The Great Boston Fire: An Inferno That Nearly Incinerated the City, is due out in January.