The Great Boston Fire Of 1872

By Karen Harris
"The Great Fire at Boston." (National Museum of American History/Wikimedia Commons)

In the early evening of November 9, 1872, a fire broke out on Boston's Summer Street. By the time the fire, which came to be known as the Great Boston Fire of 1872, was extinguished some 12 hours later, hundreds of buildings in a 65-acre area of downtown Boston had been destroyed.

The Great Boston Fire Of 1872

The fire began in a building at the corner of Summer and Kingston Streets that housed dry goods for the nearby retail stores. The bins of fabric were highly flammable, but it was the construction of the building that enabled the fire to spread so fast. The flames shot up the wooden elevator shaft located in the center of the building, and very quickly, every floor of the structure caught fire. The blaze soon leaped from the roof to nearby buildings, and approximately half an hour after it began, the firefighters who arrived on the scene realized it was more than they could handle. By 8:00 P.M., all 21 of the city's fire engines were occupied by the fire.

Despite firefighters' best efforts, the fire grew to encompass a five-block area by midnight. A few hours later, it reached the waterfront, destroying piers, wharves, and boats that were docked there before sweeping through Boston's financial district and throughout the downtown region. When the fire was finally extinguished, 13 people, including two firefighters, were dead. In all, the fire destroyed 776 buildings and caused $1.436 billion in damage in 2019 dollars, making it one of the costliest fires in U.S. history.