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CHAPTER IV.

BEGINNING OF THE GREAT FIRE.

ON the south-easterly side of Summer and Kingston Streets, but a short distance from the bay, stood a large, four-story granite building, owned by Leman Klous, and occupied in the basement and the first story by Messrs. Tebbitts, Baldwin, and Davis, wholesale dealers in dry-goods; while Damon, Temple, and Co., wholesale venders of hosiery, gloves, laces, and small wares, used the second and third floors; and Alexander K. Young and Co., manufacturers of ladies’ hoop-skirts, held the upper flat. It was one of the most solid and well-built structures in Boston, and was constructed but a few years before the fire, in accordance with a neat and carefully-prepared design. It was crowded with the merchandise which had been brought in for the winter’s stock, but contained nothing more combustible than the hundreds of dry-goods boxes and counters which occupied the lower stories. For the convenience of the whole building, an elevator had been constructed inside the walls, which was drawn up from basement to attic by means of machinery, for which a small steam-engine in the basement furnished the power.

It was from the fire under that steam-boiler, and by means of that elevator, that the great conflagration began. It is not known just how the fire caught; for the fireman raked the coals, and took all the usual precautions with careful hand. Some spark snapping outward, or some stray coal undiscovered, which escaped from the furnace during the process of raking, or overheated surfaces which came in contact with combustible material, may have caused the fearful destruction; but we can only conjecture. No human eye was there to note the little spark, the diminutive flame, and the tiny stream of smoke, that could so easily have been smothered with the foot, or extinguished with a cup of water.

It is easy to surmise that the flame started from the floor, and slowly burned its way into the sheathing and casings of the room, and thence naturally into the aperture, from floor to floor, through which the elevator passed up and down, and which acted as a flue for the fire, and with a strong draft drew the flames upward, fanning them into wilder life. The blaze may have streamed through the doorways by which the elevator communicated with each story, and almost simultaneously dashed into every apartment: but this is one of God’s secrets; and the tale, as far as human evidence is concerned, begins when the building was on fire from basement to attic, and from end to end.

The Old-South clock had just struck seven, when a pedestrian hurrying up Summer Street noticed something strange about the structure, and paused a moment to satisfy his curiosity. The gigantic fortress was silent and immovable, and the outlines of its ornamented roof and cornice cut sharp corners against the sky; while a dull, moaning sound, as of distant waters, was all that he heard. Were the owners inside? Oh, no! They had closed their shutters, balanced their accounts, covered their counters, locked their safes, and, with thoughts intention the evening’s joys or the morrow’s rest, hurried away in fancied security. They dreamed, as millions have dreamed before, that they of all others were the most safe. The week of prosperous manufacture and trade illumined their waking dreams, until the delusive light appeared to shine far into the future, showing to them, as to others, commercial hills of beauty, and valleys of social peace.

The weary footsteps of clerk and agent had long since died away as they sought the thresholds of up-town homes; and yet an unearthly, half-stifled groan came from the building, as though an army sighed within. Then suddenly a stream of flame, red as living blood, — like a hideous spectre-gleam from the regions of hell, — flickered and flashed in the darkened room of an upper story, and confronted the moonlight on the windowpanes with its hideous shadows of smoke and flame. The gigantic warehouse was on fire; and Summer Street, with all its wealth of merchandise, was in danger. Yet the confident owners knew it not; and the silks rustled as richly about the sweet faces in luxuriant halls as though no volcanic Titan was heaving, puffing, and tugging to get at their piles of merchandise and well-filled vaults. Will they smile to-morrow when he is king?

Sooner than it can be told, and before the alarm could be given, the fiery monster within, as though the building were a frail prison-house, lifts the floors, and shakes the windows; and, before his presence is known even to the solitary pedestrians whose footsteps echo in the deserted arches, he roars with the voice of continuous thunder, and, bursting the window-panes, thrusts out his lurid fingers to clasp the cornice and casings which adorn the street-front. Then, impatient of restraint, and laughing at granite, he lifts himself, and spreads his arms of fire. The walls divide, the roof falls; and the demon most dreaded of earth is free to crush and devour, till the city weeps in dust and ashes, and the wealthy are made poor.

Where is the voice or the pen which can portray that horrid feast of fire?

“Oh for a Homer’s pictured words
To paint the fearful fray!”

To one who has not seen Vesuvius in furious eruption, or heard the thunders of Stromboli, no comparison can be made which would be sufficiently expressive; and only they who saw the seething, shooting, overleaping columns of flame, and heard the hissing, snapping, and bellowing of that all-consuming fire, can form any accurate idea of it.


BOSTON IN FLAMES.

Quickly did the beholder rush to the signal-box upon the corner; and instantly thereafter the electric nerves of the city carried the news to the City Hall and to the bells, saying, in five slow strokes and two quick beats of tongue and gong, that there was fire near Box 52. Hundreds of thousands heard the notes of alarm, but went on their way as unheeding and careless as though the fire were back in the heavens from whence Demetrius stole it.

In an incredulously small space of time the steam fire-engines came rattling into Summer Street, and, one after the other, hastily took their stations at convenient points about the burning pile. Soon the water surged and hissed against the melting walls, and clouds of steam almost obscured the fire. But when the roof began to fall, and the walls to topple, the flames ascended far into the heavens, carrying up thousands of fire-brands, to drop them upon the tar-covered roofs of adjoining blocks.

Then came the war-dance of the fire-fiends, with al] its hideous concomitants, — its snapping, rattling, bellowing, crashing; its streams of hellish flame, and puffs of swarthy smoke, as though the earth had yawned, and loosed those weird, traditional denizens of its fiery depths. They peered into the glittering windows, and the panes ran off in crystal pearl-drops; they crept through the empty sashes into the ware-rooms, and danced about the ceiling, — now peering into the closets and darkened stairways; now wildly glaring into boxes of dry-goods, or slyly peeping under loaded counters, searing all with their breath of fire. Pallid faces filled the streets below; fire-engines roared and screamed; and firemen clambered upon window-sills, cornice, and embattlement: but the insatiate flames hissed their defiance, and with lurid hands thrust back the water in spiral clouds of steam. “No quarter!” screeched the flashing crusaders against wood and stone; and before them merchandise turned to ashes, and escaped by the windows in the gusts of miniature whirlwinds. Iron melted; granite crumbled; brick and mortar fell away; and stout timbers glowed a moment, and then tumbled and crashed into the ash-heaps which seethed at the bottom of the fiery abyss.

It burned as fires have burned before, and may burn again; except that never before in its history had it such solid fortresses to capture, and so much stone and iron to destroy. Wood is the fiend’s proper food; and men are not surprised when he seizes and consumes that material: but well might they look aghast, and begin to forget the “Bostonians’ stolid faith,” when slate, granite, marble, brick, iron, and steel seemed to flash up as tinder, and glow like furnace-coal. It seemed a fruitless, foolish task to attempt the quelling of such ferocious flames, when they leaped across Summer Street to Otis Street, bursting in the windows, scaling off the stone, and sending their little shoots of fire into every crevice, nook, and corner, and with white-heat driving the firemen from the street, and charring long lines of hose. Nevertheless, what man could do the firemen of Boston did. They erected barricades, and, crouching behind them, held the nozzles of the hose in position until the fire came down into the streets and seized upon their shelter. They risked their lives on precarious projections, and hung to the roof and window-sashes, using one hand for self-preservation, and with the other giving direction to the streams of water. It is true, that in the confusion, and the sometimes insane riot, which for a time were caused by the wild attempts to save the burning or exposed merchandise contiguous to the falling blocks, men jostled the firemen, crowded about the engines, and crippled the hose with the cuts of horse-hoofs and the breakage by heavily-loaded wheels. But men must be much nearer angels than they ever have been in times like that, if such a fearful calamity could threaten, and no one be unreasonably excited. The Bostonians had been calm, as we have said; and their silence and almost careless manner were something to marvel at, until the flames filled and covered the great warehouse known as “Beebe’s Block.” Then the sense of insecurity began to creep in; and, as the towers of flame rose to the clouds, Boston suddenly realized her danger. Men rushed, crowded, shouted, jammed; drove all kinds of vehicles into the crowds; and roughly trampled under foot the great network of hose, in which lay their only salvation.

Still the fire roared and crackled on. Bales of shirts, boxes of dry-goods, heaps of tailors’ cloths, shelves of fancy goods, and costly stocks of hoop-skirts, which had been stored in the basement and salesroom until those great halls could hold no more, were charred to ashes, and sent off on the winds with every whiff of the rioting flames. Laughing at water and men, the fire leaped across Otis Street to the roof of that magnificent commercial palace known as “Beebe’s Block,” standing between Summer Street and Winthrop Square. This was the very heart of the dry-goods trade; and when the fiery elements crept down from story to story, bursting windows, and flashing along cornice and windowsills, it found a store of wealth such as few commercial houses ever see. Down, down, into the lower stories, blazing along the stairways, dropping down the elevator, and with marvellous pyrotechnic displays flitting out at one window, and in at another; while immense clouds of smoke, incessantly illuminated as with electric flashes, rolled upward, and piled themselves in crags and mountains like the thunder-clouds of summer. Into counting-room, salesroom, closets, and boxes hurried the consumers, melting safes, and crushing the granite, until, after one short hour, the walls fell away, the roof thundered and crashed into the lake of fire, and only a seething furnace told of the palace, which, for its extent, was as costly as the Escurial.


BEEBE BLOCK, WINTHROP SQUARE                         OTIS STREET AND BEEBE BLOCK

From this point the fire spread in every direction, and awakened the confident thousands gazing upon it to a realization of the fact, that even Boston could burn, and that, too, in spite of all the efforts of their efficient fire-department. From the building in which the fire originated, it swept down the south side of Summer Street, ebbing along the roofs in glowing waves, just as the half-spent tides of the sea come rippling and foaming up the smooth beach. The great heat created strong currents of air, and caused the winds to whistle about the corners and alleys as fierce and cold as January. Thus growing the more greedy, the more it devoured: and, making a breeze with which to fan itself into more activity, it shot into the windows of the dry-goods stores; consumed great stacks of hats and caps, and the rooms that contained them; battered down walls, and seized upon woollens and clothing; destroyed the paintings, engravings, and plates of a great lithographic establishment as it hurried down the south side of Summer Street, toward the wharves; into needle-stores and suspender-stores, worming around and into boot-and-shoe stores; taking all the food there was in a restaurant, and crushing the building into ashes; into a comfortable home, and through a doctor’s office; tugging at the walls of a calfskin-store until leather and fixtures smouldered under a strange heap of rubbish; and then darting with dexterous skill into the show-windows, and about the stocks of leather, of furs, of gloves, of groceries, which were deposited in neighborly buildings along the street. At last it crept into the lodging-houses; and, one after another, these homes of the many lit up with wild gusts of flame, and then sank down, melted and broken, to shelter the poor and the stranger no more; then along Bedford Street, which, beyond its junction with Summer, is practically an extension of Summer Street, taking a long block of boarding-houses, and hiding them in smoke while it careened and gibbered within. From them it flitted around the corner of Broad Street, and with long streamers reached across that thoroughfare, and ignited the dry wooden station of the Boston, Hartford, and Erie Railroad, standing among the wharves of the harbor. Coal-wharves and partially-unladen vessels, storehouses for fish and ship-stores, all flashed into blaze; and the quiet waters reflected far the dazzling light and the gloomy pillars of smoke.

A great wonder has it since been to professional firemen, and professors of science, and of course more of a marvel to those who have not searched into these things, why the fire did not sweep far to the south of Summer Street, when the wind blew strongly in that direction, and when the most combustible structures in the city stood upon that side of the fire, and contiguous to it. The great fire in London, according to Defoe, exhibited the same unaccountable inclination to burn “against the wind;” and, while the fire-brigade spent much time and pains in preparing for a fight on the side toward which the wind blew, the conflagration spread with astonishing rapidity in the opposite direction, and the most combustible portion of the city was left untouched, although the breeze loaded itself with sparks and brands as it went towards the unburned district. It was only accounted for by supposing that the residents in that quarter were more devout, and consequently miraculously defended by the Almighty. The exemption of Bedford and Essex Streets, and perhaps the whole South End, could as reasonably be accounted for on the same hypothesis. We believe, however, that there is some natural law by which the flames were controlled, that will one day be discovered, and made the basis of action in all such great fires.

Meantime the fire crossed Kingston Street at the corner of Summer Street, gliding along the eaves and casings into other great blocks, where were stored the result of years of labor and the riches of many a wealthy merchant. Millions of gloves, stacks of laces, piles of clothing, carpeting (enough, it is said, to supply a whole city), thousands of hats, caps, and imported wares, all disappear in the heated flood which surges, and dashes into fragments the mighty fortresses of Boston’ most thriving trade. With linens and calicoes, silks and velvets, shawls and hosiery, straps and blankets, and the countless articles which compose a stock in the dry-goods trade, the dread element fed itself, and, by the flash of their consuming, lighted itself through the spacious apartments into Chauncey Street.

At midnight it crossed that street, still on its way up Summer toward Washington Street, and settled upon the corner occupied by Forbes, Richardson, and Co. It drove away the owners while attempting to secure some little portion of their costly fabrics, and, as if in anger, melted the windows, and, like electric currents, glimmered along from desk to counter, from bale to box, from floor to ceiling; and then, with one grand outburst, the whole store, with its stock of carefully-accumulated wealth, gleamed through the smoke like streams of molten iron. On into the great woollen stores, and through thick walls into the fur-store, streaked those ghastly fires; and there, for the first time, it relaxed in its fury, and, being confronted with skilful combatants, turned away to vent its rage on other monuments less favored in location and construction.

From Otis Street the fire made steady progress along the north side of Summer Street, destroying the warehouses and stocks of clothing-dealers, dry-goods merchants, upholsterers, venders of trimmings and furnishing-goods, sellers of sewing-machines, traders in rubber goods, in furs and small wares, printers, coal-agents, grocers, restaurant-keepers, crockery-mongers, and carpet-salesmen, and including in that terrible sweep grand old Trinity Church, with its stores of traditions, its costly furniture, and embattled walls of granite.



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