Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Boston Fire of 1872

“Helped Will this forenoon.  Worked at digging a ditch this afternoon.”

City ruins after the fire
The Great Boston Fire of 1872 was Boston's largest urban fire, and still ranks as one of the most costly fire-related property losses in American history. The conflagration began at 7:20 p.m. on November 9, 1872, in the basement of a commercial warehouse at 83—87 Summer Street in Boston, Massachusetts. The fire was finally contained 12 hours later, after it had consumed about 65 acres (26 ha) of Boston's downtown, 776 buildings and much of the financial district, and caused $73.5 million in damage.  At least 20 people are known to have died in the fire.
Many factors contributed to Boston's Great Fire:
·         Boston's building regulations were not enforced. There was no authority to stop faulty construction practices.
·         Buildings were often insured at full value or above value. Over-insurance meant owners had no incentive to build fire-safe buildings. Insurance-related arson was common.
·         Flammable wooden French Mansard roofs were common on most buildings. The fire was able to spread quickly from roof to roof, and flames even leapt across the narrow streets onto other buildings. Flying embers and cinders started fires on even more roofs.
·         Fire alarm boxes in Boston were locked to prevent false alarms, therefore delaying the Boston Fire Department by twenty minutes.
·         Merchants were not taxed for inventory in their attics, therefore offering incentive to stuff their wood attics with flammable goods such as wool, textiles, and paper stocks.
·         Most of downtown had old water pipes with low water pressure.
·         Fire hydrant couplings were not standardized.
·         The number of fire hydrants and cisterns was insufficient for a commercial district.
·         A horse flu epizootic that spread across North America that year had immobilized Boston's fire department horses. As a result, all of the fire equipment had to be pulled to the fire by teams of volunteers on foot. This is often cited as the leading cause of this fire growing out of control, but the city commission investigating the fire found that fire crews' response times were delayed by only a matter of minutes.
·         Looters and bystanders interfered with fire fighting efforts.
·         Steam engine pumpers were not able to draw enough water to reach the wooden roofs of tall downtown buildings.
·         Gas supply lines connected to street lamps and used for lighting in buildings could not be shut off promptly. Gas lines exploded and fed the flames.

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