On November 9, 1872, a fire broke out on Summer Street, disrupting a calm Saturday evening and eventually engulfing almost the entire modern-day Financial District.
The Great Boston Fire of 1872 raged uncontrolled for over 12 hours, killing 13, destroying 766 buildings, and causing an estimated $75 million in damage, the commission that investigated the fire found, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society.
The front page of The Boston Daily Globe’s November 11 edition proclaimed:
A Terrible Conflagration in Boston.
LOSS OF HUMAN LIFE.
RICH MEN BEGGARED IN A DAY.
TRIUMPH OF THE FIRE-FIEND.
Though the cause remains unknown, Boston Fire Chief John Stanhope Damrell all but predicted the impending disaster after seeing the aftermath of the devastating 1871 Chicago Fire, according to a Boston Globe report. Damrell had been pleading with the city since 1866 to install new hydrants, a steam engine, and larger pipes, but officials rejected his proposals.
Almost everything from Washington Street to Boston Harbor and between Summer and State streets were reduced to rubble. Though most buildings were made of brick or stone, the fire spread rapidly from wooden window frames and other fixtures, according to the Boston Fire Society. The fire department was also impeded by a disease affecting the horses that pulled its heavy equipment.
Against Damrell’s wishes, untrained men with City Hall connections used gun powder to blow up buildings in the fire’s path — but only succeeded in fanning the flames, according to the Globe.
The destruction left the area a “charred crater,” according to a Boston Globe Magazine story.
“I saw the fire eating its way straight toward my deposits,” the poet Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, Globe Magazine reported.
Following the fire, a committee formed to urge the city to “establish anew in the burned district the lines of all the streets which are too narrow or too crooked for the present and future wants of the chief city of New England,” according to the Globe. This public response resulted in a relatively more rational layout of downtown streets than before the fire.