On November 9th in 1872, a fire in Boston destroyed hundreds of buildings and killed 14 people. In the aftermath, the city established an entirely new system of firefighting and prevention. The fire also led to the creation of Boston’s financial district.
The fire began in the basement of a warehouse at the corner of Kingston and Summer streets. At the time, this area of the city contained a mix of residences and light industry. Its buildings and most area roofs were made mainly of wood, allowing the blaze to spread quickly as the wind blew red hot embers from rooftop to rooftop. In addition, as Boston streets were narrow, large flames from one structure could literally leap across them to nearby buildings.
Firefighting units from Maine to New Haven, Connecticut, arrived to help, but efforts to fight the fire were plagued by difficulties. There was not enough water on hand to get the fire under control; the hydrant system did not work well because much of the equipment was not standardized; and even when firefighters got their hands on an adequate supply of water, the height of the buildings and the narrowness of the streets made it difficult to direct the water at the blaze from the optimum angle. Because a local equine epidemic had struck the city fire department’s horses, it was difficult to get the fire engines to the correct locations at the right times. In addition, some of the efforts were counter-productive. Explosions were used to attempt fire breaks, but this high-risk strategy was not executed with enough precision and served only to further spread the fire.
The fire was finally stopped at the doors of Fanueil Hall the following morning, but it had already destroyed much of the downtown area. Boston’s officials realized that their fire-prevention efforts had been ineffective and, in the aftermath of the disaster, began to revise and strengthen all of the city’s fire laws and regulations. An inspection system was instituted and the local fire departments began to coordinate their efforts.
The fire also helped fuel Boston’s growth. The business community saw the burned area as an opportunity to expand its presence downtown. The city’s financial district was established where the fire had hit hardest and Boston soon became a key business center of the late 19th-century United States.