Author(s): Stephanie Schorow Published on May 1, 2011

CONFERENCE + EXPO FIRE HISTORY
Boston Fire Trail
A walkable guide to the city’s fire and disaster history

NFPA Journal®, May/June 2011 

By Stephanie Schorow

Celebrated and much imitated, the Freedom Trail winds through Boston marking highlights of the American Revolution, ranging from Paul Revere’s home to the Battle of Bunker Hill. An unmarked trail, more somber but no less significant, also winds through Boston, a city that has seen more than its share of major fires and disasters.

 

YOUTUBE VIDEO FEATURE

Author/historian Stephanie Schorow presents three infamous fires that took place in the city of Boston: The Great Boston Fire of 1872, the 1942 Cocoanut Grove Fire, and the collapse of the Hotel Vendome in 1972.

RELATED NFPA FEATURES
 The Great Boston Molasses Flood (NFPA Journal, M/J 11)

Remarkably, the sites of many of these calamities — from the fast-moving inferno at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in 1942 to the bizarre and deadly molasses flood in 1919 to the 1872 conflagration that devastated Boston’s downtown — are within walking distance of each other, creating a "Boston fire trail" that is easily accessed on foot by participants at this year’s NFPA Convention + Expo. You can also use the subway to visit individual destinations or sections of the trail. However you get there, a stroll along this historic trail offers a glimpse of tragedies and triumphs that have had repercussions for public safety issues around the country.


1  Battle of Bunker Hill
Bunker Hill Monument + museum, Charlestown

Boston’s fire trail begins at the terminus of the Freedom Trail in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, at the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill of June 17, 1775. This was the first major armed conflict in what would become the Revolutionary War; significantly, the British used fire as a military tool to quell popular resistance. During the battle, British General William Howe ordered his naval forces to aim heated shot into Charlestown, setting fire to nearly 400 homes and devastating the town. The destruction fueled anger at the British and helped to bring on full-scale revolt.

MBTA Subway: Orange line to Community College

2 The Molasses Flood
529 Commercial St., North End

Just over the North Washington Street Bridge from Charlestown is Boston’s North End and the site of one of the country’s strangest disasters. In 1915, developers built a 50-foot-tall (15-meter-tall) tank on Commercial Street to hold molasses, used to produce rum and industrial alcohol, a critical component of high explosives and smokeless powder. The tank was poorly constructed and had not been adequately tested for strength; owners had painted it brown to disguise its leaks. In 1919, the container was filled with about 2.3 million gallons (8.7 million liters) of molasses. On the afternoon of January 15 the tank ruptured, sending a 15-foot( 5-meter) tidal wave of molasses surging into the neighborhood. Twenty-one people, including a Boston firefighter, were trapped and killed by the viscous liquid; 40 more were injured. Today, the area is the site of a park and athletic fields; a small marker commemorates the horror of what historian Stephen Puleo calls Boston’s "dark tide."  Read more about the Molasses Flood and watch a video interview with Stephen Puleo.

MBTA Subway: Orange or Green line to North Station

3 Cocoanut Grove Fire
15–17 Piedmont Street

One of the worst nightclub disasters in American history occurred less than a mile from Downtown Crossing. But misconceptions abound about the fire that roared through the popular Cocoanut Grove nightclub on November 28, 1942, killing nearly 500 people. One is that the fire led to the passing of new rules about revolving doors, exits, and overcrowding. The sad reality is that many communities had already adopted safety codes that addressed such hazards; it was only after the Cocoanut Grove fire that such rules were actively enforced. 

The club, licensed for 500 occupants, was packed that November night with more than 1,000 people. One story about how the fire started was that at about 10:15 p.m., a busboy lit a match in a downstairs lounge while fumbling to find the socket for a small light bulb tucked inside a fake palm tree.

Seconds later, the palm tree was in flames, and ignited the lounge’s cloth ceiling. Within minutes, a huge fireball was roaring through the entire club. Many patrons ran to get out through the main entrance, a revolving door, which jammed shut from the crush. Other patrons raced for other exits but found them locked or blocked. An exit door in a newly added lounge opened inward; pressure from the crowd pushed the door shut, trapping many inside.

Among the hundreds killed by heat and smoke were Buck Jones, a famous cowboy star; a wedding party including the groom, bride, best man, maid of honor, and the groom’s sister; four brothers from the same family; and many nightclub staffers who stayed behind to try to guide people to safety.

Victims were rushed to local hospitals, where new burn treatments were used, including less invasive topical  treatments and intensive fluid replacement — grim but pioneering efforts that led to medical innovations. The official death toll was put at 492, a figure that included one guilt-stricken survivor who committed suicide more than a month after the fire. More than 160 people were injured.

An investigation was launched, but despite trials and testimony, the cause of the Cocoanut Grove fire was deemed to be of "unknown origin." Among the possible sources of ignition was questionable electrical wiring. To this day, many wonder why the fire, if indeed sparked by a busboy’s match, was able to move so quickly through the club.

What was more evident was the club’s poor safety record and lax oversight. The club had passed an inspection just 10 days before the fire, despite the locked exits and combustible furnishings. Owner Barney Welansky had used unlicensed electrical contractors, bragging of his close connection to the city’s mayor. Welansky was convicted of involuntary manslaughter; his trial set legal precedents that would be cited in cases as varied as the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island and the 2010 BP oil spill.

In an analysis published soon after the fire, NFPA Technical Secretary Robert S. Moulton reiterated that adherence to the NFPA building exit codes might have mitigated the tragedy. The codes explicitly prohibited revolving doors in places of assembly; if they were used, swinging doors had to be located nearby. The codes dictated that doors should swing with, rather than against, exit travel. "There is a real danger in attempting to remedy the conditions responsible for the Cocoanut Grove tragedy by the enactment of more laws," Moulton wrote. "This is too apt to result in satisfying the public demand by passing a law and then leaving the law to gather dust."

In 1992, A bronze plaque marking the tragedy was placed in the sidewalk on Piedmont Street, near the location of the revolving door. It was made by a club employee who had survived the tragedy.

MBTA Subway: Green line to Arlington

4 The Great Fire of Boston
Locations throughout downtown

A 15-minute walk takes you from the North End to Boston’s Downtown Crossing, the heart of the city’s financial and retail district. Most days, the area is alive with the bustle of shoppers, office workers, and tourists. But on November 11, 1872, the area was a smoldering ruin. On November 9 and 10, a massive conflagration roared through downtown, consuming 776 buildings and laying waste to 65 acres (26 hectares). The fire’s massive destruction helped propel efforts to establish stricter building codes throughout the nation to protect the growing cities.

This effort was largely due to John S. Damrell, elected as Boston’s chief engineer (fire chief) in 1866. A carpenter by profession and a volunteer firefighter who rose through the ranks, Damrell had repeatedly warned Boston councilors about the potential danger of aging water mains, inadequate water supplies, congestion, and hazardous construction, such as the popular wooden Mansard roofs, in the growing city. After a visit to Chicago in the wake of its epic 1871 fire, he feared Boston would suffer the same fate. For his efforts, Damrell was repeatedly rebuffed and pointedly told to not "magnify the needs of your department."

In November 1872, the Boston Fire Department was on heightened alert. A severe outbreak of horse distemper had felled nearly all the steeds in the city; engines would have to be pulled by men, not by horses. Sometime after 7 p.m. on Saturday,  November 9, fire was seen in a four-story granite building at the corner of Kingston and Summer Streets. The building, a wholesale dry goods business, was filled with flammable material and topped by a Mansard roof. A police officer saw the flames and cranked the Box 52 alarm at Summer, Lincoln, and Bedford Streets; three companies, dragging apparatus by hand, arrived within minutes.

Damrell heard the public bells ring out "52" and ran from his home on Beacon Hill toward Summer Street, arriving in time to see the fire roaring out of control. Soon a full-scale conflagration was underway, as the fire jumped from roof to roof. Firefighters established lines, only to fall back as they struggled with poor pressure in their hose lines. By 8 p.m., all 21 Boston engine companies were engaged, and frantic telegraphs went out seeking help from fire companies from Connecticut and New Hampshire.

The fire spread north, east, and west, reaching Federal Street by 10 p.m., about three blocks away. By midnight, it was consuming buildings on Congress and Pearl Streets, about five blocks away, and by 4 a.m., it had jumped Broad Street to the city’s waterfront, burning wharves and boats. By 6 a.m., the fire had reached Washington Street, the heart of downtown, and was moving north toward Liberty Square. The heat was so intense that granite buildings exploded, and efforts to dynamite other buildings to create firebreaks proved futile. Early on November 10, a desperate battle was on to save Old South Meeting House on Washington Street, where the Boston Tea Party was planned. When the clock in the tower struck 6 o’clock a.m., many onlookers concluded they were hearing it strike for the last time. But steam fire engines arriving by flatbed train from New Hampshire, including the Kearsarge Company 3 from Portsmouth, 60 miles (97 kilometers) away, were able to get water on the roof and save Old South. By 1 p.m. on Sunday the fire was under control. Around midnight, however, a gas explosion at the corner of Summer and Washington Streets triggered another blaze, which firefighters battled well into the following day.

By the time the fire was truly out, 11 firefighters and perhaps 30 civilians had been killed. The damage in today’s dollars would be in the billions.

Damrell was criticized for his handling of the fire and soon left the fire department. But in 1873, he helped found what would eventually be called the International Association of Fire Chiefs, which today represents the leadership of more than 1.2 million firefighters and emergency responders. In 1877, Damrell was appointed Boston’s building commissioner and held that position for 25 years; his son succeeded him. He continued to advocate for improvements in national building codes. A building code recommended by the National Board of Fire Underwriters, NFPA’s parent organization at the time, passed in 1905, the year Damrell died.

Today, a plaque notes the start of the fire at Kingston and Summer Streets. In November 2010, Old South Meeting House commemorated the anniversary of the 1872 fire with a return of the partially restored Kearsarge fire engine to the scene of one of the fiercest battles in Boston fire history.

MBTA Subway: Orange or Red line to Downtown Crossing

5 The Prudential Center Fire
800 Boylston Street

The 52-story Prudential Center, with its observation deck and shops, has been a prime tourist attraction since it was built in 1965. But "the Pru" also has a place in Boston’s fire history. On January 2, 1986, fire broke out on the fourteenth floor, forcing the evacuation of 1,500 employees. All escaped alive. The fire led Boston to pass an ordinance requiring that any building higher than 70 feet (21 meters) install a sprinkler system. 

MBTA Subway: Green line to Prudential

6 Hotel Vendome Fire + Collapse
Commonwealth Avenue + Dartmouth Street

In Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, a distinctive granite and bronze memorial near the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Dartmouth Street commemorates the worst single loss of life event in Boston Fire Department history. The events of June 17, 1972, at the Hotel Vendome on Commonwealth Avenue underscore the danger of fire even when everything appears to be under control. 

The six-story hotel, built in 1871, was undergoing renovations when fire was reported on the fourth and fifth floors about 2:44 p.m. The four-alarm blaze was ultimately controlled by 16 fire engines, five ladders, two aerial towers, and one heavy rescue. But at about 5:28 p.m., as mop-up operations were beginning, the building collapsed without warning, trapping about a dozen firefighters and killing nine of them. For 12 hours, firefighters worked frantically to rescue their fellow "jakes" — New England slang for firefighters. An investigation later pointed to structural problems in the building’s internal supports, but the findings came as little solace to the firefighters’ families.

In 1997, on the 25th anniversary of the fire, a Vendome Memorial, designed by sculptor Ted Clausen and landscape architect Peter White, was dedicated on the Commonwealth Avenue mall just across the street from the restored hotel, now a condominium complex.

MBTA Subway: Green line to Copley

7 Fenway Park Fires
Kenmore Square

Few places in Boston are more beloved than Fenway Park, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2012. But few realize that twice in its history, the home of the Boston Red Sox was nearly lost to fire. 

In May 1926, the bleachers along the foul line in left field burned down, ignited by a careless cigarette after a game. The penny-pinching team owners let the charred ruins sit untouched for months. On January 5, 1934, as the park was undergoing renovations, a heater used to dry cement overturned and set fire to a canvas covering. The fire spread to newly constructed bleachers and caused more than $220,000 in damages, a huge sum at the time. Owner Tom Yawkey vowed to rebuild and, indeed, the park opened on time for the new season in April 1934.

MBTA Subway: Green line to Kenmore

Fire + Remembrance
A June 12 event honors the memories of Boston firefighters

Every second Sunday in June, in an event called Memorial Sunday, firefighters, families, and city officials gather at one of Boston’s most revered cemeteries to pay their respects to departed firefighters.

In 1857, a Firemen’s Lot was set aside in Boston’s 275-acre (111-hectare) Forest Hills Cemetery, located in Jamaica Plain, for the burial of indigent city firefighters. The first two were buried here in 1858 after being crushed by a falling wall in a fire. The lot was later opened to all Boston firefighters, and today 137, including 15 killed in the line of duty, are interred in the 13,594-square-foot (1,263-square-meter) area.

A dramatic 26-foot-high (8-meter-high) granite monument, topped by a nine-foot (3-meter) firefighter cast in bronze, was erected on the Firemen’s Lot in 1909. Each side has a dramatic bas-relief bronze plaque that shows an historic firefighting scene: a horse-drawn steam engine racing to a blaze; a hand tub; a hook and ladder truck; and a protective wagon. The figure, reportedly modeled on a real firefighter known only as "Cosgrove," was sculpted by John Albert Wilson. Opposite the memorial is the grave of John S. Damrell, the chief of the city’s fire department during the Great Boston Fire of 1872.

Memorial Sunday, which is open to the public, will be held June 12, beginning with a morning Mass at the cemetery’s Forsyth Chapel, located at the main entrance, followed by a slow march with bagpipes to the Firemen’s Lot, where flowers will be laid on the graves. The event is held rain or shine.

For more information on the Firemen’s Lot, visit bostonfirehistory.org/firefightermemorials and cityofboston.gov/fire/memorial/firemans_lot.asp.

MBTA Subway: Orange line to Forest Hills

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