Here to return to
QUELLING THE FIRE.
LITTLE hope was entertained of saving any portion of the North End until after the fire passed Milk Street in the forenoon of Sunday; for there was then a perceptible lull and a hesitancy, which gave the exhausted firemen new courage. Little cared the monster for the revered localities where Benjamin Franklin was born, where Edward Everett once lived, or where Daniel Webster’s family gathered about his fireplace; and, with more than usual fury, it lashed about Gov. Winthrop’s homestead and the site of Widow Tuthill’s windmill. But when the massive walls of the new post-office, with their nicely-carved towers, colonnades, and arches, arose in its path, it shook its lurid locks in rage, but respected and avoided the huge barriers of solid iron and granite which they held in its way.
There, by that temple, which, like the nation it represents, stood firm as Plymouth Rock, the great victory began. The mighty exterminator had failed in its hold upon the Old South, notwithstanding it lurked and growled about that ancient pile so long. It had strangely relaxed its grasp upon Chauncey, Kingston, and Bedford Streets, after having them wholly in its power, and that, too, while being re-enforced by the wind. It had been driven from Washington Street by the united efforts of so many fire-departments, and had taken all that was inflammable, and much that usually is not, on the water-front of Broad Street; and, when it reached Milk Street, its path lay northward across State Street to Faneuil Hall.
But to the honor of brave men, many of whom gave their lives in the cause, be it said, that, before the demon reached State Street, he was baffled, and driven back to hide his ire beneath smoking ruins and useless débris. Banks, brokers’ offices, restaurants, auctioneers’ rooms, hardware and leather stores, on Congress Street, north of Milk Street, fell into his clutches; while slaters, cotton-brokers, bankers, druggists, lumber-dealers, coal and commission merchants, manufacturers of gaiters, steam apparatus, saddlery, paper, oil, rubber, ale, ink, glue, paint, scales, valves, nails, medicines, railroad-supplies, and wringing-machines, on Water and Kilby Streets, were added to the appalling list of losers before the monster could be checked. Liberty Square, with its carriages, dry-goods, twine, iron, drain-pipes, hardware, dye-stuffs, wax-works, drugs, and glassware, must mingle the dust of its ashes with the leather, the church, the dwellings, and the barrels of Purchase Street, and the type, machinery, dry-goods, cigars, billiards, junk, boarding-houses, wool, and silks of Congress Square, Morton Place, South Street, Lindall Street, Bath Street, Pearl Place, South Street, Bussey Place, and Broad Street, before the grasp of the consumer could be loosed, and the awful destruction stayed.
Even the old post-office and United-States treasury building, which stood with its front on State Street, was assailed in the rear; and the last great conflict was had within its walls. When it began to flicker on the doors, and worm itself into the windows from the burning stores on the other side of the street, the valuable tons of writing which awaited transportation to thousands and thousands of waiting ones had been safely stored away in Faneuil Hall; but, as if determined they should never come back, it burst the sash, seared the counters and desks, crushed the beautiful dome of crystal, burst the. pillars, cracked the corner-stones, and persistently leaped toward the news-stands and decorations in the hall-way, through Niagaras of water, and geysers of steam. It hissed and snapped in floor and ceiling long after the foaming streams of Cochituate water spurted in torrents into every window, surged about every column and counter, and gushed in a score of Minnehahas over the door-sills and stairways. That was a fair fight. Water enough, and fire enough; and the water came off conqueror.
It was evening before the danger was passed, and the fire at last subdued. Meantime the city had heard a din more thrilling and chilling than arose with the Boston Massacre, the Broad-street Riot, or the North-end Fire. Such quakings when enormous buildings were lifted with powder, and fell back crashing into rubbish! such ear-piercing shrieks as great beams slowly swung from mortise and pin! such bellowing as the winds lifted the flames toward the heavens! such incessant rattle, rumble, roar, and whistle! such clattering, hissing, and breath-expelling thugs! reminding the soldier of beleaguered forts and cities, about whose burning barracks bombs and cannon unceasingly boomed.
It was a sublime scene which rewarded the adventuresome spectator who visited the ruins during the “smoky period;” for the fire was far from being extinguished when the flames ceased to spread. Enormous piles of lumber, leather, dry-goods, and other combustible materials, still streamed with fire, and rolled up vast columns of smoke, seemingly filling the dome of heaven with cloudy peaks and cliffs. Through the lowering, ashy mists which hung about the outskirts, bright shoots of fire could occasionally be seen; while spouts of smoke rushed upward from every broken wall, and the strange atmospheric quiverings which are seen above a furnace, and which there were intensified and enlarged to a most astonishing degree, gave a dazzling brilliancy to every view. From the corner of Summer and Chauncey Streets, on Sunday evening, the effect of these airy wavings was to make the whole spectacle — the scraggy walls, iron columns, piles of granite, and dim, smoke-enshrouded pillars — appear in motion, like reflections in a lake when disturbed by a wave-awakening pebble.
All that dreary Sunday night, feverish flushes of firelight discolored the sky; and occasionally some rubbish-heap would burst and flare with a magnesian glow, making igneous shadows on the landscape fifty miles away.
Boston by firelight and Boston by gaslight are, in appearance, two different cities. There is an unnatural glitter on the windows far removed from the conflagration, and corners are illuminated which neither gas nor sun has effectually done for scores of years. The faces of men and women have a ghastly incandescence; and flitting semi-shadows — not smoke, nor fire, nor air; nor the shades of any thing traceable — tremble on the sidewalk, the buildings, and trees, in an extremely unpleasant manner. The State House, the crown of Boston, standing above the rolls and mists of smoke, looked that night like the dome of the partially cloud-obscured Temple of Fame as shown in old engravings. A grand sight, worth a lifetime to see, and, alas! costing many a lifetime of the hardest toil.