Friday, November 03, 2006
The Great Boston Fire of 1872
H is a local architect whose position on the Cambridge Planning Board made him a special guest at this event--he was the first person to be introduced to the audience by Twickler in his remarks before the showing. I had gratefully accepted H's invitation immediately, and we met over fruit and cheese plates outside the hall last night to catch each other up on the latest in our lives. In his place on the Board, he's involved with making sure that projects proposed for construction within the city conform to the latest fire codes, a concern that would not exist had it not been for the documentary's subject, John S. Damrell, Chief Engineer of the City of Boston Fire Department from 1866 to 1873.
Damrell wasn't the original subject of the documentary--the Great Fire of Boston that raged November 9th and 10th, 1872 was. But as Twickler and his crew investigated deeper and deeper into the history of the conflagration, Damrell began to dominate as its obvious hero. He was in many ways the first modern Fire Chief in the nation's history, one who applied a rational approach to urban planning with gut instinct when in crisis situations at major fires, after which he pursued what might be called a forensic analysis of the fire's genesis, spread and eventual containment to learn how to prevent disasters in the future.
Damrell visited the site of the Great Chicago Fire (October 1871--just 13 months before Boston's) and came away disturbed by its implications for his own city. Chicago burned for three days, October 8, 9, and 10, with a loss of over 300 lives, destroying an area measured in square miles. Most of what burned was wooden in construction and much of the terror of the fire was caused by the firestorm conditions that rendered most firefighting effort useless.
Boston, dangerously, lived in false confidence that it was essentially fireproof. The inner city was built of brick and granite, with everyone ignoring the reality that its mansard roofs were all framed and sheathed in wood. Worse, the city administration's leaders were from the Boston Brahmin class who looked [down] on Damrell as a blue collar worker who should be taking their orders rather than suggesting they follow his directions. Worst of all, the inner city's infrastructure was woefully inadequate as to street width, fire hydrant water pressure, and access to alarm boxes that were kept locked to prevent the public from making false alarms—only the police had the keys. For six years Damrell, who knew and understood the implications of all of this, had reported to city authorities that major reforms were urgently needed, particularly after the destruction of Chicago. For six years his reports were summarily dismissed.
At approximately 7:00pm on November 9, 1872, fire broke out in the basement of a commercial building in the downtown business district. Local residents saw it but couldn't register an alarm at the locked box--it took 45 minutes for them to attract police attention by which time the building was fully engaged with windows blowing out and flaming debris falling into the street. Fire stations were slow to respond because an epidemic of a debilitating equine disease had killed or sidelined all the city's horses--firemen had to drag their engines through the streets themselves. By the time they arrived on the scene, the fire had leapt from roof to roof and the streets were filled with spectators and business owners trying to empty their shops of as much merchandise as possible. When hydrants were tapped, water pressure was insufficient to put a stream of water as high as the roof of most buildings. It wasn't long before the fire began to create its own "weather," convection causing great tongues of flame to leap-frog from block to block.
Damrell was just beginning to gain the upper hand thanks to a couple of main streets with larger mains and better water pressure when he was forced to knuckle under to Brahmin orders to blow up buildings in order to create a fire break. It was a technique he knew had failed in Chicago and it proved disastrous in Boston. Unsupervised demolition teams, untrained in explosive use, managed to reignite the northwestern edge of the fire, spreading it toward the State House and the iconic Old South Church, meeting house for the eventual leaders of the American Revolution. Damrell saved Old South--clearly visible unharmed beyond the rubble in one period photograph--by having it covered with water-soaked blankets and carpets, then managed to call off the rampaging explosives teams and, by 7am on the 10th, had begun to contain the fire.
Because John Damrell had fought the Boston Fire with the beginnings of modern fire management techniques, aided no end by superbly dedicated and disciplined fire fighters, Boston's fire lasted only twelve hours, destroyed only sixty-five acres and the death toll was held to an astonishing twenty, nine of them firemen.
In future years, Damrell's reputation grew as fire chiefs nationwide recognized his achievement and made him a model to emulate.
Effectively ousted as Chief by his enemies in Boston's city administration a year after he had prevented the fire from invading their city's residential areas, Damrell became Boston's Building Inspector in 1877.. From that position he was able to develop and enforce building standards to eliminate central staircase wells that allowed fire to spread with chimney effect through every floor of a building in seconds. Building materials were regulated and fire escapes mandated. By this time he had been elected leader of a couple of national fire and building safety associations.
Baltimore burned the year after Boston. Other U.S. cities suffered from major fires in the late 19th century, but the era of catastrophic urban conflagrations was nearing its end. John S. Damrell died in 1905 just before the publication of the first nationwide code for fire safety in buildings, a major advance in public safety his career and influence had helped propel into being.
An interesting news item came over with this morning's news. The Reverend Ted Haggard, Senior Pastor of the New Life Church in the Denver area, has abruptly resigned his influential, high visibility position as President of the National Association of Evangelicals. Haggard, who is married and father of five, has been accused of paying a gay man for sex for years by the man himself on a radio talk show.
The unidentified man, a hustler although not referred to as such on CBS TV news, claimed as his motivation anger over Haggard's viscious public opposition to gay marriage and gay rights in general. Among the activities Haggard is alleged to have taken part in during their trysts is smoking crystal meth. His accuser backs up his story with emails and recorded phone messages from Haggard that he says he will make available to the media.
love the bush clock!