(Photo: Boston Public Library)
Boston, November 1872: A ‘Wilderness of Ruins’
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2011
The photographs could be of Atlanta in 1864, or Berlin circa 1945. In fact, they were taken in Boston on November 10, 1872, a day after fire swept through the city’s business district, destroying almost everything in its path.
The fire began in a downtown warehouse around 7:30 p.m. on November 9, and burned for 12 hours as it traveled south and east. Its cause is still unknown. Setting out to document the devastation, a Boston photographer named James Wallace Black took 150 albumen prints of the fire-ravaged city. The "wilderness of ruins," as Oliver Wendell Holmes called it, hit Black hard: his studio on the north side of Washington Street was spared, but the buildings across the street were gutted.
Black’s haunting images were widely published at home and abroad, collected in a book called Ruins of the Great Fire in Boston, November 1872, and are now part of a fascinating online collection maintained by the Boston Public Library. As Sally Pierce notes in her book, Whipple and Black, Commercial Photographers in Boston, the photographs succeed because of their unique point of view, focusing on "architectural structures and unusual details such as piles of wet clothing."
A dozen years earlier, Black had photographed Boston from a hot-air balloon tethered 1,200 feet (366 meters) above the Boston Common. He got six successful negatives, the "first aerial views taken in America," according to the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography.
To see more of Black’s 1872 fire photos, as well as his aerial shot of the city before the fire, visit www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/sets/72157625121092204.
— Kathleen Robinson