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CHAPTER XIII.

THE FIRE-DEPARTMENT.

IN time of fire, the most important organization in the city government, as well as the one having the highest authority, is the fire-department. To that men naturally look for safety; and, in order that it may not be trammelled by too much red-tape ceremony, the law gives its chief a temporary lease of the supreme authority. We have already spoken of the great confidence which the people had in the sagacity and strength of its firemen, and the sacrifice they had made before it was realized that the fire was master.

Boston has been so free from fires since the organization of the fire-department in its present form, that we naturally felt as if it would always be so, and that, at last, science and wise legislation had found a sure preventive of great fires. The men were selected with care; the steam fire-engines were of the latest, best pattern and workmanship; hooks, ladders, hose-carriages, hose, nozzles, water-pipes, hydrants, and scaling‑apparatus, all were supposed to be as nearly in a perfect condition as the money and genius of man could make them.

In this were made several mistakes. First, It is not for man to be so wise, that none of the interminable ways of Providence shall take him by surprise. Man cannot provide for all the contingencies and accidents of the future; and no fire-department, unless it be composed of prophets, can be so well fortified against unexpected and novel phases of burning as to meet with success all encroachments of the flames. Second, There was not an ample supply of water. In 1869, the Board of Engineers, according to their published report, warned the city against the danger of a fire in the very locality where this began, and recommended the construction of reservoirs in that vicinity to draw from in case of a great conflagration. But it seems that the request of the fire-department was unheeded: consequently there were more engines than water; and some had to remain idle, or go to unimportant points. The water-pipes were too small to supply the draught of more than two engines.

Third, There were no horses to draw the engines and hose-carriages to the fire; all having been stricken with the prevalent “horse-disease.” Upon this matter there existed a great difference of opinion; and while the majority claimed that the absence of horses did not retard the progress of the engines, and that streams were set upon the fire as quick as they could have been if the propelling power had been supplied by horses instead of men, yet some there were, whose opinions were worthy of respect, who stated that the absence of horses made fatal delays. However that may be, it is a matter of history that the carriage of Hose No. 7 was in the street by the burning building before the officer had time to open the signal-box and sound the alarm; and that Steamer No. 7 was “fired up,” and turned the corner by the fire, before the last bell of the first alarm was struck. The Officers of Steamer No. 7 (“The T. C. Amory”) were Daniel T. Marden, foreman; Charles Riley, engine-man; Henry J. Adams, fireman; and George W. Stoddard, driver.

Immediately after No. 7 came No. 4 (“The Barnicoat”), with Joseph Pierce, foreman; Dexter R. Deering, engine-man; William T. Cheswell, fireman; and Russell White, driver. There can be no doubt but that the disposition of these two engines was the very best that could have been made; and that the wisdom shown by the foreman did prevent the spread of the flames to the southward, in which direction the wind was strongly blowing. Who could have believed that it would have run with such speed against the wind? These engines took all the water from the pipe; and the Others, as they arrived, were sent to different and more inconvenient points by Chief Engineer Damrell, who early arrived on the ground. He made the best arrangements he could for obtaining sufficient water; but greater floods were needed than the Cochituate took to Summer Street or into that vicinity.

They came with the speed of steam, — engines, carriages, and men. From the North End, from the West End, from East Boston, from the South End, from South Boston, from the Highlands, from every street almost, there came engines or implements for the extinguishment of fire.

The alarm was sounded from Box 52, on Summer Street, five times, — viz., at 7.24 o’clock, P.M., at 7.29, at 7.34, at 7.45, and at 8, — by which time the connections were consuming; and the next alarm, at 8.17, came from Box 123. When it was found, at 8.24, that a monster of such hideous and Cyclopean proportions was to be fought, Box 123 sent out the general alarm; and at 10.09 another call for help came from the bells striking Box 48.

It was before the last general alarm in the city when Chief Engineer Damrell was satisfied that his department could not cope with the flames; and, with a creditable forethought, he had the presence of mind to send for help to other cities, and at the same time to carry the responsibilities and care of his own immense department with careful calculation.

Then, by every avenue which leads to Boston, came the engines, carriages, and ladder-wagons of the suburban cities, some drawn by horses, others by racing squads of excited men, rattling, roaring, puffing, yelling along, like divisions of artillery rushing on to certain victory.

“George H. Foster,” Steamer No. 1, and Hose 3, of Somerville; Steamers Nos. 2, 3, and 4, of Cambridge; “Howard,” Steamer No. 1, and two Navy-Yard engines, with Hose Companies Nos. 1, 3, and 4, of Charlestown; Steamers Nos. 1 and 2 of Newton; “Col. Gould,” Steamer No. 1, of Stoneham; the “Gov. Lincoln” and “A. B. Lovell” of Worcester; No. 1 from Natick, with others from Watertown township, Watertown United-States Arsenal, Waltham, Lynn (2), Salem (2), Hyde Park, Fall River, Wakefield, Reading, Brookline (hose, hook-and-ladder, and hand-engine), Brighton (hose), Lawrence, Taunton, Haverhill, New Bedford, Newburyport, West Roxbury, Chelsea (2), and several other places, came rushing into the city; which, with the twenty-two engines of the Boston department, would seem enough to drown the whole district.

But many of the engines from the suburbs had hose too large or too small; the couplings were of the wrong make to fit the city hydrants, or some other part of their apparatus was unfit for use in the city; and much delay and annoyance were the result. The Wakefield hand-engine was drawn in by a hardy and noble set of fellows a distance of twelve miles, because there were neither horses nor steam-conveyance to be had.

Other States sent in their men and steamers, including engines from Newport and Providence, R.I., New .Haven and Norwich (2), Conn., Manchester (2) and Portsmouth, N.H., and Biddeford, Me. Many places sent in offers of assistance; and would have sent their fire-departments, had they not been told that the city contained, at the time they telegraphed, all that could work to advantage. Others were present of whom no record was made, because of the excitement and press of other duties on the fire-department, but who came and went with a quiet modesty as impressive and creditable as were their zeal and their hard labor while they remained.

It was one of the severest conflicts in the history of firemen. There were deeds as brave, and acts as self-sacrificing, as the battle-field or the ditches of a siege could furnish, — real, true heroism, genuine daring, cool intrepidity. They stood on dangerous places; they faced the fire until it scorched them to a blister; they clambered into windows and along projections, risking their lives to save the property of others; they dashed into smoke-filled halls and stairways, walked through flames, and stood firm at their post, when sparks and steam and heat seared them with unceasing torture.

Some fell from dizzy heights, and were broken and torn; some were run over by the sudden shifting of apparatus; while some, alas! went down, down, into billows of fire, and mingled their ashes with the dust of ruined temples; and others were buried in the crushing piles of broken timber and masonry, there to hear the surging of the coming tide, and the shouts of friends whose efforts to uncover them were unavailing, and at last slowly and surely to die the awful death of fire.

The heart beats too quick, the tears are too thick, and the soul sends its shudders through the frame too solemnly, to write calmly. The pen quivers, and is slow to answer the demand of the intellect, when we recall that dreadful scene and those piercing cries.

The great difficulty which the firemen met with in their combats was in getting the streams of water as high as the tops of the buildings. The roofs were nearly all of the Mansard pattern; which, while they are attractive in an æsthetic way, are but tinder-boxes of pine and tar in time of fire. Against these combustible roofs, set up out of reach, Chief Damrell had often protested: but men do not think of these things before a disaster as they do in the days which follow it; and hence they kept the wooden roofs, and shared in the conflagration which those combustible piles drew into their warehouses. No sooner was the fire under headway than the currents set in motion in the atmosphere began to whisk and whistle around the upper stories, completely cutting off the water before it reached them, sending off in spray or steam the largest and the most powerful streams. It seemed like a work against fate.

As the conflagration swept onward, crossing street after street in its march, it was decided to blow up all the buildings on Milk Street on the south side from Devonshire Street, to and through Morton Place, as many of the buildings in this locality were of a very combustible nature, and would endanger the entire northern section of the city. This was between twelve and one o’clock on Sunday morning: but a sufficient quantity of powder could not be obtained in this city at that time; and Alderman Jenks despatched a police-officer to the Navy Yard with a request to Commodore Parrott to furnish a quantity of that article. With commendable promptness, the commodore ordered five one-hundred-pound kegs of powder to be placed in a hack; and the officer soon reported back, when the blowing-up of buildings on Washington, Devonshire, and Water Streets, was commenced. To make the corner of Milk and Washington Streets the objective point in the ravages of the fire northward, every effort was made, and fortunately proved successful. Then, to stop its crossing State Street, and sweeping the section of the city lying beyond that point, a number of buildings were mined on the south side of that street and on Devonshire Street, between Water and State Streets; but, before these extreme measures were required, the dreaded element was under control, and all further danger avoided.

In a report of an interview with Chief Engineer Damrell, we find the following reference to the use of powder: —

“At no time did Mr. Damrell or his associates apprehend that the fire would cross Washington Street from Summer to Milk Streets; and, to prevent such a catastrophe, a considerable number of engines were massed along that part of Washington Street. The chief regrets that he yielded to the pressing demands of prominent citizens in the blowing-up of buildings, as the corse pursued in consequence of their urgent entreaties, instead of arresting the conflagration, as they supposed would be the case, had the effect to shatter the windows in adjacent warehouses filled with goods, and furnished additional fuel for the flames. His judgment and that of his assistants was, that a square of buildings quite a distance in advance of the fire should be demolished, and thus open a gap where a large force of the department cold be thrown, and resist further destruction.

“Nevertheless, the destruction of buildings by these means served materially in preventing the spread of the flames in certain directions; and it proved, it seems to us, one of the most important elements in battling the flames. No active measures were taken to blow up any buildings, or to mine them in preparation for such an event, until many hours after the fire broke out. The right to cause the destruction of buildings to prevent the spread of a conflagration is not vested in the mayor, as many doubtless suppose, but solely in the chief engineer of the fire-department. Capt. Damrell was not of the opinion that the exigencies of the occasion demanded these measures; and the necessary steps were not taken until Gen. Burt and other citizens urged the matter strenuously. Details of citizens were made to take charge of the different streets leading to the fire, and of different sections of the threatened districts, to take any steps deemed necessary under the circumstances. Among those appointed upon this detail were George O. Carpenter, Edward Atkinson, Alderman Jenks, Col. E. O. Shepard, and other well-known citizens. To the members of the Boston Insurance Brigade, for the most part, was intrusted the important duty of handling the powder, placing it in position, &c.; and, although great personal risk was incurred in all this, it is not known that the slightest accident occurred. The members of the brigade, and all others engaged in the dangerous business, performed their duties admirably.

“The first building blown up was on Milk Street, near Devonshire Street; and, soon after, the street below and the cross-thoroughfares were cleared for further operations of the same sort. But this was a work which ought to have been done long before, if it was to be done at all. A building on Milk Street opposite Federal, and another on the south-east corner of Milk and Congress Streets, were soon after sacrificed. The first explosion took place between two and three o’clock. At a later hour, the large building at the south-west corner of Water and Congress Streets was mined, and blown up with much better success than in some of the previous attempts at other points. The mode of distributing the powder seemed to differ at different points, and there was doubtless much disparity in the amount of powder used in different cases. In few instances, probably, was especial pains taken to ‘tamp the powder; that is, to place braces against the kegs, or to cover them with some heavy materials so as to compress the explosive powder as much as possible. Where the powder is placed in the cellar, and thus confined, the effect is to bring down the whole structure inward. The consequences are something after the style of what follows an earthquake-shock.

“Some of the early explosions availed but little; and the first really successful blow-up was at the building on the south-east corner of Milk and Congress Streets, recently cut away for the purpose of widening the latter thoroughfare. At this point, we believe, two attempts were made; the last proving effectual. Efforts were made to destroy all the buildings on the north side of Milk Street, between the new post-office and Congress Street. Gen. Burt had previously planned the blowing-up of buildings on Morton Place and the vicinity; but the powder sent for did nOt arrive in time. The first powder used came from Read’s gun-store. Further supplies were brought from the magazine in Chelsea and the Navy Yard. The buildings on the north side of Milk Street actually blown up were numbered from fifty-eight to seventy inclusive. At the building on the corner of Milk and Congress Streets powder was placed in the cellar, and also in the second story; and, when the explosion took place, that in the second story only was fired. The rest was probably fired when the building caught fire.

“Major-Gen. Benham visited City Hall at an early hour, and proffered his experienced aid to Chief Damrell and the mayor for the purpose of directing the mining operations. One of Gen. Benham’s first recommendations was, that the building on the corner of Washington and Milk Streets, adjoining ‘The Transcript’ office, and occupied by Messrs. Currier and Trott, and also the building on the west side of Congress Street occupied by J. E. Farwell and Co., printers, and ‘The Saturday-evening Gazette,’ be destroyed, — the former to save the Old South Church when ‘The Transcript’ building should take fire, and the latter to interrupt the progress of the flames toward State Street. Another plan proposed by him was to blow up the buildings lying north of Water Street, near Kilby Street, and running through to Hawes Street; this being designed to stop the fire before it should reach Robinson and Brother’s liquor-store, from which it was sure to communicate to the post-office and United-States sub-treasury.

“The Currier and Trott building was subsequently operated upon; and at about nine o’clock, when the fire was working through Congress Street toward State Street, the building at the corner of Congress Street and Congress Square (occupied by I. M. Learned and Co. as an eating-house, and forming a continuation of the building occupied by Farwell and Co. and ‘The Gazette’) was blown up. The explosion in Currier and Trott’s building did not work the entire destruction of that edifice; but it had a singularly good effect upon the ruins of ‘The Transcript’ office, which was then in flames. It gave the latter a gentle shaking-up; and every thing of an inflammable character was precipitated between the walls. Between eight and nine o’ clock, one or two buildings on Lindall and Kilby Streets were hoisted by a liberal application of gunpowder.

“When the fire threatened State Street, Gen. Benham counselled the blowing-up of different buildings on Kilby Street, and also the destruction of buildings above and below the Old post-office building; but this was not done. At another time, under charge of the fire authorities and citizens’ detail, the post-office itself was mined, with the intention of causing its destruction; but this plan was not carried out, as the onward march of the flames was checked.

“A large amount of powder was used in the various operations in Milk, Water, Congress, Lindall, and Kilby Streets. At least one hundred pounds of powder were used in each building; and sometimes two hundred pounds, three hundred, and even a greater amount, were brought into requisition. Most of the powder was brought from the Navy Yard and other United-States depositories, or from the powder-boat in the harbor. Gen. Benham also ordered up two tons of the material from Fort Independence; and it was brought up on the engineer’s steamer ‘Tourist,’ and landed at Central Wharf.”

Whether time and investigation shall ever decide that there are better means of battling fire than with powder cannot be decided now; and though engineers may in theory object to its use, and the taxpayers may grumble when they are compelled to pay the full cash value of every building so destroyed, whether it would have been burned or not, it is yet doubtful if any thing can open a gap before a fire, in which to work in advance of it, so effectually as powder under the scientific management of careful hands. At a meeting of the chief engineers of Eastern Massachusetts, held in Charlestown several days after the fire, the course of Chief Engineer Damrell during the fire was fully indorsed.

It is pleasant to record how the brave firemen were remembered by the people, and their needs supplied with such liberal hands. Jordan, Marsh, and Co., the largest dry-goods dealers in the city, gave all the firemen blankets on the night of the fire, and afterwards subscribed ten thousand dollars toward their relief fund; and were followed by “The Boston Herald,” a thousand dollars; the Merchants’ National Bank, five thousand dollars; and then by a long and honorable list of donors, who gave, for the families of the injured and killed, sums varying from a hundred to two thousand dollars.

How much Boston does owe its firemen and those of sister-cities! A debt of gratitude it is, as sacred and as binding as that we acknowledge toward the soldier who defends with his life our firesides and our families.

The Board of Engineers, at the time of the calamity, consisted of Messrs. John S. Damrell, chief; Joseph Dunbar, Zenas E. Smith, William A. Green, George Brown, John W. Regan, John S. Jacobs, Phineas A. Allen, Rufus B. Farrar, James Munroe, John Colligan, Joseph Barnes, Sylvester H. Hebard, Levi W. Shaw, George W. Clark, assistant engineers; Henry W. Longley, secretary; and Charles R. Classen, assistant secretary.



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