The New York Journal reported that “A fire started today at the county Gaol (jail) west of the Town House, now known as The Old State House” in Boston. [i]
Colonial Boston suffered through many major fires in 1653, 1676, 1682, 1691, 1711, 1753, 1760, 1767, 1769, 1774 and 1872. Here’s a brief history but more can be learned during our Boston Massacre or Paul Revere tours.
The fire of March 20, 1760, was called The Great Fire. It destroyed 349 buildings. Eventually, the all-consuming fire of 1872 assumed the tag of The Great Fire.
Boston had a mature fire-fighting system that started around 1631. The city was acutely aware of the problems it faced. By 1635 ordnances were written to ban highly flammable thatched roofs and wooden chimneys. Eventually, new construction of wooden houses would be eliminated. Arthur Wellington Brayley’s book on Boston’s fires will provide you with significant detail on the fire of 1760 and the city’s zoning resolutions designed to prevent the fire of 1872.[ii] Unfortunately, there was much yet to learn about defending fires.
The area called Fort Hill or Corn Hill would soon prove to be fire-prone. Both the 1760 and 1872 fires consumed the area from Washington Street down to the water line at Rowe’s Wharf. It was this area of town that was entirely industrialized by the 1870’s. The flammable material, stored within, increased the damage and ferocity of both fires. A photo of the 1872 damage is posted above. Nearly 349 buildings in 1760 and another 800 in 1872 were destroyed. In all cases, the energy to rebuild was frantic with establishments resurrected in a years time.[iii] A walk through the neighborhood will exhibit numerous 1873 corner-stones.
The Colonists built “Fort Hill” during the French and Indian War of 1754 to 1763 to protect the harbor. The fire of 1760, led to its quick undoing.[iv] In its final stage, the fire reached the military fort and exploded the remnants of the remaining gunpowder. The explosion was heard in Hampton, New Hampshire, forty-six miles up the Northern coastline. The fire marked the end of the Fort and the hill. The city used the fire residue as landfill pushing development deeper into the southern side of the harbor, beyond Post Office Square, nearly to the South Boston Dorchester Heights channel.
So on January 30, 1769, at 10:30, P.M., a fire was started by the inmates of the county gaol (jail), in the heart of Boston, as a means of escape. Obviously, there were some cunningly stupid occupants if you’ll permit us one oxymoron. Immediately, the churches in the area rang their bells calling trained volunteers to Engine 5. Residents came running with their leather buckets and fire tools meeting the engine and pumping it full of water. The jailers initially could not find the keys (?) to unlock the prisoners. Despite a very hostile month between the British occupation force and Boston’s “town watch” the British soldiers ran to the sound of fire and offered help. Captain Wilson of the British 59th[v] Regiment was very helpful freeing the prisoners, including several British soldiers. As the fire raged into the morning, British sailors were sent to shore with fire-fighting equipment assisted by officers and even an admiral.
The town was saved but only the stone walls of the gaol survived. Two prisoners died, several were badly burned and some were injured as they were pulled through small turret openings to safety. The soldiers were never thanked for their assistance. Worse, their first offer of help was rudely rejected. If they read the next edition of the local papers, it would only report the week of violent incidents between the good folks of Boston and the occupation force.
Subsequent fires on the 31st, February 1st, and March 11th initiated a law to the General Court that would convict any person who refused to obey a fire wardens order to assist at a fire. The next major fire came shortly on August 8, 1769. For the first time gunpowder was used to blow up buildings and block the fire’s path. Boston was one hot town.
On March 5, 1770, at 9:05 p.m., the night of the Boston Massacre, there was an erroneous call to fire by the church bells in town. As the fire engine and volunteers from Dock Square rounded Congress Street onto King Street (State Street today), they were immersed in a mob taunting a lonely soldier guarding the British custom house. From all appearances, political operatives used the town alarm system to escalate the mob and emotions that soon exploded into the event known as the Boston Massacre.
We will expand on all of the incidents above in our walking tour along the Freedom Trail and to the site of the major fires and the Massacre. Please join us by scheduling below.
The books referenced below are better than fiction. While being entertained you will recognize the critical in-depth remarkable planning initiated by cities like Boston and Chicago to address the devastation caused by fires.
John Rowe's diary entry; https://www.walkbostonhistory.com/john-rowe-and-the-jail-fire.html
[i] The New York Journal, March 2, 1769, Supplement, pp. 1-2.
[ii]Brayley, Arthur Wellington. A complete history of the Boston fire department, including the fire-alarm service and the protective department, from 1630 to 1888. Boston: J.P. Dale, 1889. Chapter I.
[iii] Drake, Samuel G. 1856, The History and Antiquities of Boston . . .., through 1770, Published by Boston Luther Stevens, 186 Washington Street.
[iv] Butler, Gerald W., Mary Shaner, and Richard Shaner. The guns of Boston Harbor: from the Bay Colony through the present. United States: 1stBooks Library, 1999. P 1,2.
[v] Not to be confused with Captain Wilson of the 14th Regiment and his call for a slave uprising in Boston.
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