COLONIAL AMERICA’S BIGGEST FIRE
In the days of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, big fires regularly destroyed towns and cities, but no city burned more than Boston.
Between Boston’s founding in 1630 and the start of the American Revolution in 1775, fires regularly devastated large sections of the city. It’s not hard to see why. The Puritans who settled on Boston’s hilly Shawmut Peninsula used wood from nearby forests to build practically everything—houses, churches, and shops. They even used it to make chimneys. And the colonists cooked meals and heated their homes with open fireplaces full of wood crackling and popping. At night, candles and oil lamps provided light.
Colonial Boston had its first recorded fire in 1631, when a chimney caught fire and burned a house down. Soon afterward the colonies had their first fire code: “noe man shall build his chimney with wood, nor cover his house with thatch.” New regulations followed each big fire. Boston’s Board of Selectmen, which was like a city council, required residents to clean their chimneys regularly. The selectmen also decreed that “no dwelling house in Boston shall be erected and set up except of stone or brick and covered with slate or tyle.”
In 1678, the selectmen purchased the latest firefighting equipment, an English-made “hand tub fire engine.” At the time the word engine simply meant a tool or instrument. It was a rectangular wooden vessel with a pump, a short leather hose, and handles on each side for carrying. During a fire, a line of men, women, and children, which was called a bucket brigade, drew buckets of water from a creek or well and passed them to firefighters to fill the engine. Several men pumped the engine while one held the hose, which spurted water 15 to 20 feet.
The selectmen chose a dozen men to operate the engine. The man in charge was called the engineer. They were paid for each fire they fought, which gives Boston its claim to having had America’s first paid firefighters.
Some twenty Bostonians in 1718 organized a mutual fire society, pledging to help one another if a fire started in their homes or shops. The rules required that “each Member confidently keep together in good Order in his Dwelling House, Two Leather Buckets, a Bed Winch, and two Bags.” During a fire, the society’s members filled their bags with dishes, clothing, and other small items. With the winches, they dismantled beds, often a family’s most valuable possessions.
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, and at age five he witnessed the Great Fire of 1711, which destroyed some one hundred buildings in the center of town. In 1736, as an adult living in Philadelphia, Franklin helped to organize America’s first volunteer fire company, the Union Fire Company. Franklin’s firefighters were “Brave men, men of Spirit and Humanity, good Citizens or Neighbours, capable and worthy of civil society, and the Enjoyment of a happy Government.” Boston and other colonial cities soon organized their own volunteer fire companies.
As in Philadelphia, Boston’s volunteers included the town’s leading citizens. “It is of some Importance in Boston,” noted John Adams, America’s second president, “to belong to a Fire Clubb and to choose and get admitted to a good one.” Many Bostonians who distinguished themselves in the American Revolution, such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere, were volunteer firefighters.
Boston also organized nighttime street patrols or fire watches. This practice dated back to ancient Rome, when men on night patrol were called “vigils” because they were vigilant, or watchful. Time is of the essence when fighting a fire. By discovering a blaze quickly, alerting residents, and summoning firefighters, vigilant patrols saved property and lives.
In the spring of 1760, Boston’s population of fifteen thousand people made it the third-largest city in the colonies. In addition to its building codes, mutual societies, and night watchmen, the city had nine fire engines and about one hundred volunteer firefighters. The city appeared prepared but wasn’t.
The regulations requiring that dwellings and shops be built of brick or stone had never been strictly enforced. Many buildings along the narrow, winding streets in the oldest part of Boston were wood. In fact, wood was everywhere. Stacks of logs for heating and cooking sat beside every house and shop. Plus, bakers, blacksmiths, brewers, coopers, and tanners kept piles of logs for their ovens and furnaces.
Little rain had fallen for several weeks, so all of this combustible material was especially dry. Making conditions worse, a strong March wind blew across the peninsula.
At 3:00 A.M. on Thursday, March 20, a watchman saw flames in the Brazen Head Tavern and Inn on Pudding Lane in Cornhill, a neighborhood between the Boston Common and the harbor. The fire probably started when embers popped out of the inn’s fireplace. Summoned by church bells, firefighters carrying ladders and buckets and pulling engines, which were now on wheels, ran to Pudding Lane. Unable to save the Brazen Head, the men tried to stop the fire from spreading.
The firefighters threw water on neighboring buildings and used their hooks and chains to pull down several shops and homes to create a firebreak. A firebreak is an open space cleared as much as possible of flammable material. The demolished buildings also made it easier for firefighters to soak the rubble and extinguish firebrands as these airborne embers landed. But that night, nothing worked.
A sailor from Nova Scotia named David Perry described the scene in his journal: “While we were here the town took fire in the night … the wind in the north-west and pretty high; and in spite of all we could do with the engines, &c. it spread a great way down King’s Street, and went across and laid all that part of the town in ashes, down to Fort Hill. We attended through the whole, and assisted in carrying water to the engines.”
The inferno lit up the sky. People sixty miles north of Boston reported seeing the red glow. By dawn, the fire was “a perfect torrent of flame,” recalled Bostonian William Cooper. “It is not easy to describe the Terror of that Fatal morning.… The distressed Inhabitants of those Buildings wrapped in Fire scarce knew where to take refuge.”
At the harbor, about half a mile from where it started, the fire burned Hallowell’s Shipyard and Wendell’s Wharf, where a storehouse full of gunpowder exploded. The blaze destroyed one sailing ship and damaged nine others before burning out at the water’s edge.
Surprisingly, no one died. “In the midst of our Distress we have great cause for Thanksgiving,” Cooper wrote, “that not withstanding the rage of the fire, the explosion at the Small Battery, and the falling of the walls, and chimneys, Divine Providence, who so mercifully ordered it, not one life has been lost and few wounded.”
But the rest of the news wasn’t good. The “Great Fire of 1760” was the worst fire of the colonial era. In ten hours, the fire had destroyed 349 buildings, mostly in the South End. Because of the wind’s direction, the Meeting House was spared. Many protests a few years later against British policies, such as the Boston Tea Party, began at the Old South Meeting House.
Prominent Bostonians offered explanations for the fire that might seem odd to reasonable people today but were widely believed then. The Reverend Jonathan Mayhew, the man later credited with coining the phrase “no taxation without representation,” gave his “Sermon Occasioned by the Great Fire” at Old West Church on Cambridge Street. Mayhew told his congregation:
But it seems that God, who had spared us before beyond our hopes, was now determined to let loose his wrath upon us, to rebuke us in his anger, and chasten us in his hot displeasure.… Soon after the fire broke out, he caused his wind to blow; and suddenly raised it to such a height, that all endeavors to put a stop to the raging flames, were ineffectual.
Why was God angry? Because Bostonians were skipping church and “profaning” the Sabbath by working.
Despite believing that mortal men couldn’t prevent destructive fires, the selectmen became tougher about enforcing building codes—especially the ones requiring that new houses and shops be made of brick or stone, with tile or slate roofs. The city widened and straightened narrow streets that would act as firebreaks and give firefighters more room to maneuver. It also bought more ladders and dug new wells.
But these improvements did little to help the Great Fire’s victims. The blaze had destroyed the wooden tenements of free African Americans and the brick homes of wealthy merchants. Once-prosperous families were penniless and homeless. Carpenters, coopers, and coppersmiths had lost their tools and couldn’t earn a living. Fire insurance, which would have helped them replace their property, wasn’t common at that time. Other colonies and merchants in England sent money and goods, but not enough.
Boston’s selectmen wrote a letter to King George and to Parliament in London, asking “most humbly … to take their calamities case into their compassionate consideration, and grant them such relief as to the great wisdom and goodness of this Honorable House shall deem proper.” Two years later, the selectmen received a reply. The letter simply stated their request had been received, but no aid was offered.
Some historians have wondered if the Great Fire of 1760 added to the grievances that led to the American Revolution. Already frustrated by Parliament’s and the king’s indifference to their plight, Bostonians grew angrier when Britain imposed the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, and other new taxes. Their resentment led to a revolution, which began on April 19, 1775, at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
Copyright © 2014 by Michael L. Cooper
Michael L. Cooper is the award-winning author of many history and biography books for young readers. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.