“A fearful time for old Boston”: The Great Fire of 1872
It was with extreme surprise and pain that I learned on going out onto the street yesterday morn of the extensive conflagration sweeping th[r]o the business part of Boston. It seemed impossible that fire could get such headway among those solid granite buildings which one would think were almost fire proof.
This passage comes from a letter in the new MHS collection of Hatch family papers. It was written by Charles H. Hatch in St. Paul, Minn. to his brother Edward on 12 November 1872, two days after the Great Boston Fire devastated much of the city’s financial district. Edward worked for Allen, Lane & Co., dry goods commission merchants on Devonshire Street. He wasn’t hurt in the fire, which broke out shortly after 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, but Allen, Lane & Co. lost $250,000.
Here’s a map of the affected area from The Story of the Great Fire, published by Shepard & Gill in 1872, and an artist’s rendering from Russell H. Conwell’s History of the Great Fire in Boston (1873).
Charles Hatch was suffering from an unspecified illness, possibly consumption, and had only recently left Boston for the Midwest. He regretted being so far away from his older brother Edward, affectionately nicknamed “Boz.”
The fire & its results form the chief topic of conversation here and all manifest the deepest sympathy for suffering Boston and take the greatest interest in the reports as they come. […] I wish I had been there during the fire Boz and wish I was even now. It must have been a grand and terrible sight.
Eager for news and frustrated by “somewhat conflicting and very vague” accounts, Charles wrote again at 8:00 a.m. the following day.
Dear Boz I can hardly realize that the best part of the business centre of Boston is a pile of smouldering ruins. The news comes so contradictory and uncertain that I scarce know what to believe. It is a terrible blow to Boston and it must take a long time for her to recover from it. […] I am waiting most anxiously a letter from you to know how and to what extent you will be affected by it.”
Other MHS material related to the Great Fire includes letters in the Higginson family papers II. On 10 November, James J. Higginson in New York wrote to his father George, “I scarcely know what to say to you in face of the horrible tidings that the news-boys are shouting in one’s ears.” The next day, he complained, “The most alarming rumors were spread around here yesterday, and even late in the evening very little seemed known accurately.”
Some of the most detailed descriptions of the fire and its aftermath come from the journals of merchant William Gray Brooks. Unlike Charles Hatch and James Higginson, he wrote as a first-hand witness to what he called “a fearful time for old Boston.” His entry for 16 November 1872 reads: “One week this evening since the great fire. What a week! The ‘burnt district’ is still smouldering and smoking and the walls are being taking [sic] down.”
(These three photographs are taken from the Wigglesworth family photographs II. The third depicts Devonshire Street, the street on which Edward Hatch worked. See also our before-and-after stereoviews of Pearl and Washington Streets.)
While laborers worked to clear the rubble and relief efforts got underway, residents feared the fire’s return. In fact, two additional fires did break out, one on 19 November near the Custom House and another the next day in Cornhill, very close to Brooks. He wondered in his journal if Boston was a “doomed city.” However, the streets thronged with visitors, and the financial district was soon rebuilt.
On 26 November 1872, Mayor William Gaston appointed a commission to investigate the cause and management of the fire, as well as factors contributing to its spread. The commission’s report begins:
The fact is painfully familiar, that on the 9th of November last, on a calm and mild evening, a fire broke out in the building numbered 83 and 85 Summer Street, and raged without control till the afternoon of the following day, spreading through the best business portions of Boston, covering sixty-five acres with ruins, destroying 776 buildings, assessed at the value of $13,500,000, and consuming merchandise and other personal property estimated at more than sixty millions of dollars. (p. iii)
To the more important question how the fire began, no answer can be given. There is no evidence whatever criminating any of the occupants of the building, nor is there anything to show that it caught from the furnace or the boiler, except the fact that it began in that portion of the building. (p. iv)
Brooks probably spoke for many Bostonians when he wrote in his journal on 30 November 1872, “The last day of November, a month that will mark an era in the history of Boston. What a different city it is since the beginning of the month.”
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