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These striking photos show the devastating aftermath of The Great Boston Fire back in 1872

Ian Smith

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. 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 30 people are known to have died in the fire.

 The fire rendered thousands of Bostonians jobless and homeless.Hundreds of businesses were destroyed, and dozens of insurance companies went bankrupt. However, the burnt district was quickly rebuilt in just under two years, mostly from the private capital of Boston’s commercial property owners.City planning during the post-fire reconstruction caused several streets in downtown Boston to be widened, particularly Congress Street, Federal Street, Purchase Street, and Hawley Street, and reserved the space for Post Office Square. Most of the rubble and ruins of the buildings destroyed by the fire was dumped in the harbor to fill in Atlantic Avenue.

Boston issued bonds for use by 16 private property owners in the downtown area to rebuild. A citizen who lived outside the area sued successfully, arguing that the bonds were a transfer of wealth from one set of citizens to another.

 

Bachelder's Wharf, Federal St.

Bachelder’s Wharf, Federal St.

 

Bank of North America

Bank of North America

 

Boston in ruins

Boston in ruins

 

Building remains

Building remains

 

Burr, Taft & Co. Devonshire St.

Burr, Taft & Co. Devonshire St.

 

Cor. High and Summer St.

Cor. High and Summer St.

 

Cor. Pearl & Milk St. to Oliver

Cor. Pearl & Milk St. to Oliver

 

Cor. Washington & Milk St.

Cor. Washington & Milk St.

 

Corner of High and Summer Streets

Corner of High and Summer Streets

 

Federal St. (H. M. Williams 42 India St.)

Federal St. (H. M. Williams 42 India St.)

 

 

 

Federal St. (post office . . . fire engine)

Federal St. (post office . . . fire engine)

 

Liberty Square, Water Street, cor. Kilby Street, facing State Street. Claflin Guards, Newton, Co. C., 1st Regt., Mass Militia

Liberty Square, Water Street, cor. Kilby Street, facing State Street. Claflin Guards, Newton, Co. C., 1st Regt., Mass Militia

 

Milk St. (edge of burned area)

Milk St. (edge of burned area)

 

Part of Boston Harbor and Summer St.

Part of Boston Harbor and Summer St.

 

Photographic panorama of the 'Burnt District' of Boston, after the Great Fire, November 9, 10, 1872

Photographic panorama of the ‘Burnt District’ of Boston, after the Great Fire, November 9, 10, 1872

 

Post office building after the fire

Post office building after the fire

 

Post office from Milk Street

Post office from Milk Street

 

Post office on left

Post office on left

 

Rear of old post office

Rear of old post office

 

Remains of Claflin Larrabee building

Remains of Claflin Larrabee building

 

Remains of Donahoes block, Franklin St.

Remains of Donahoes block, Franklin St.

 

Ruins of Centaur Liniment near City Hall

Ruins of Centaur Liniment near City Hall

 

Ruins of the Great Fire

Ruins of the Great Fire

 

Ruins of Trinity Church, Old South Church, new post office

Ruins of Trinity Church, Old South Church, new post office

 

Sargent Brothers' store, Winthrop Square

Sargent Brothers’ store, Winthrop Square

 

State St. block, Pearl St. walls, Sailors' Home

State St. block, Pearl St. walls, Sailors’ Home

 

Summer St. cor. Washington

Summer St. cor. Washington

 

Summer Street south side, looking toward Broad St.

Summer Street south side, looking toward Broad St.

 

Trinity Church

Trinity Church

 

Washington St. looking north

Washington St. looking north

 

Washington St. north from Winter (Old South Meeting House in background)

Washington St. north from Winter (Old South Meeting House in background)

 

Washington St., east side

Washington St., east side

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.

 

All Photos from Boston Public Library