...in 1760, the dreaded cry of "Fire!" roused sleeping Bostonians. Over the next ten hours, the worst fire to strike a colonial American city ravaged the capital of Massachusetts. Beginning in a tavern near the central market, the wind-whipped blaze spread quickly. The flames consumed shops and homes along King and Congress Streets and continued down to the wharves, where ten ships were left in ashes. Faced with staggering losses, Boston sought aid from the King and Parliament. While other colonies took up charitable collections for the city, the British government refused to help. Some historians have suggested that the Crown's indifference to Bostonians' plight after the Great Fire of 1760 was an early spur to the spirit of rebellion.
No one knows what started the fire of 1760. Open fires were part of everyday life in colonial Boston; embers from a banked fireplace, an untended candle, or a chimney that had lost its clay coating caused frequent conflagrations. Flames spread rapidly, with winds off the ocean driving fires across wood-shingled roofs and quickly consuming cedar-clad houses, sheds, warehouses, and wharves. Fire was a constant hazard in all colonial cities, but Boston's location on a densely packed peninsula in a windy harbor meant that it had more blazes than any other colonial metropolis.
Major fires reshaped Boston repeatedly in the seventeenth century. A visitor noted in the 1680s that Boston was liable to fire "as has already happened several times; and the wonder to me is that the whole city has not been burnt down, so light and dry are the materials." Between the first major fire in 1653 and a huge blaze in 1711 that destroyed much of the center of town including the Old Meeting House and the Boston Town House there were at least seven other great conflagrations. Like many of the early fires, the 1711 blaze destroyed blocks of the town center around the Cornhill Market and commercial district. With over 100 buildings lost, Puritan preacher Increase Mather took to his pulpit and proclaimed that the blaze was God's just punishment for Boston's decline into sinfulness:
"Has not God's Holy Day been profaned in New England? . . . Have not burdens been carried through the streets on the Sabbath Day? Have not bakers, carpenters and other tradesmen been employed in servile works, on the Sabbath Day? When I saw this . . . my heart said, Will not the Lord for this kindle a fire in Boston?"
While ministers preached repentance, city officials began enacting laws and establishing practices for preventing and responding to fires. Immediately following the first great blaze in 1653, officials decreed that each house be equipped with a ladder to reach the roof, poles with swabs to snuff out sparks, and other tools to fight fires. Boston became an early leader in firefighting regulations; it was later to pass the first fire-related building codes. It also led the way in introducing new firefighting apparatus.
After a grievous fire in 1676, the town decided to invest in a new hand-operated water pump imported from London. The device was a simple wooden box with handles that could be carried to fires. There it was filled with water by a bucket brigade, and when pumped, it shot a stream of water out a flexible hose. To operate the "hand tub fire engine," Boston named 12 men, who would be paid for responding to fires and using the new machine. With this resolution, passed January 27, 1678, Boston became the first town in the nation to have paid fire fighters. As the town added more machines and more "engineers" to operate them, it decided that these firefighters should be trained "under the same discipline as soldiers," and by 1720 Boston had the beginnings of a modern fire department with ten fire wards, six machines, and 20 paid firefighters.
Volunteers also played a major role in fighting Boston's fires. Responding to a fire had always been a civic duty of all men in Boston; when the cry of "fire" or the pealing of church bells signaled that flames had been spotted, every household was required to send a man with a leather bucket to help fight the fire. In September of 1718, Boston organized the "Boston Fire Society," the nation's first mutual aid organization. Members pledged to fight fires at each other's homes, rescue their property, and guard against looting.
Volunteers and members of the Boston Fire Society joined the "engine companies" with their hand-pumped "fire engine" to combat the blaze that broke out in Boston in the early morning of March 20, 1760. But the wind-whipped blaze spread quickly to businesses and homes around the central market area. The flames, which one observer described as "a perfect torrent of fire," leveled shops and homes along King and Congress Streets and continued straight down to the wharves. The fire raged for ten hours. Hundred of residents fled and "scarce knew where to take Refuge from the devouring flames; Numbers who were confined to Beds of Sickness and Pain, as well as the Aged and Infant . . . were removed from House to House and even the dying were obliged to take one more Remove before their final one."
David Perry, a sailor from Nova Scotia, recorded in his journal: "[W]e were billeted out at the house of a widow, named Mosely; and while we were here the town took fire in the night. It originated in a tavern . . . at about midnight, 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 number of buildings burnt was about three hundred."
Perry's estimate was low. Though no life was lost, the fire consumed about 350 homes, shops, and warehouses. The loss of property made it the worst fire to date in the American colonies.
Boston's fires did not end with independence. Major blazes continued to plague the city. In 1792 the Massachusetts Charitable Fire Society dedicated itself to "stimulating genius to useful discoveries tending to secure the lives and property of men from destruction by that element." Luminaries such as Samuel Adams, Charles Bulfinch, Josiah Quincy, and Paul Revere all turned their energies to inventing ways to prevent or fight fires. The city became a leader in firefighting innovations. In 1851 Boston pioneered the world's first telegraph fire alarm system, with red alarm boxes spread throughout the city that connected citizens to the nearest fire house with the turn of a crank.
Innovations, of course, did not bring an end to Boston's fires. Other famous blazes to enter the history books include the infamous Ursaline Convent Fire of 1834, the Great Fire of 1872, the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire, and the Vendome Hotel Fire in the twentieth century. Boston has responded with innovative building codes, firefighting equipment, and a well-trained fire department. Most of all, the city has demonstrated its resilience: each major blaze has led to rebuilding.
Boston on Fire: A History of Fires and Firefighting in Boston, by Stephanie Schorow (Commonwealth Editions, 2003).
Our Volunteer Firemen, 1736-1882, by Donald Collins (Science Press, 1982).
Fire Engines, Firefighters: the Men, Equipment, and Machines, from Colonial Days to the Present, by Paul C. Ditzel (Crown, 1976).
Dennis Smith's History of Firefighting in America: 300 years, by Dennis Smith (Dial Press, 1978.