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History of the Great Fire of Boston
HAD Hugh Miller, in his polished essay upon Dr. Chalmers, been writing of the great fire in Boston, and its effect upon the world, he could not have employed language more apt: “Has the reader ever heard a piece of heavy ordnance fired amid the mountains of our country? First, there is the ear-stunning report of the piece itself, the prime mover of those airy undulations that travel outwards, circle beyond circle, toward the far horizon; then some hoary precipice, that rises tall and solemn in the immediate neighborhood, takes up the sound, and it comes rolling back from its rough front in thunder, like a giant-wave flung far seaward from the rock against which it has broken; then some more-distant hill becomes vocal; and then another, and another, and anon another; and then there is a slight pause, as if all were over. The undulations are travelling unbroken along from flat moor, or across some expansive lake, or over some deep valley, filled, happily, by some long withdrawing arm of the sea. And then the more remote mountains lift up their voices in mysterious mutterings, — now lower, now louder, now more abrupt, anon more prolonged; each, as it recedes, taking up the tale in closer succession to the one that had previously spoken, till at length their distinct utterings are lost in one low, continuous sound, that at last dies out amid the shattered peaks of the desert wilderness; and unbroken stillness settles over the scene, as at first.”
Through a scarce voluntary exercise of that faculty of analogy and comparison so natural to the human mind, that it converts all the existences of the physical into forms and expressions of the world moral and intellectual, we have oftener than once thought of the phenomenon and its attendant results, as strikingly representative of effects produced by “the great fire in Boston.” It is an event which has, we find, rendered vocal the echoes of the world; and they are still returning upon us, after measured intervals, according to the distances.
Our first wild cry of anguish comes back to us from all parts of the world, more and more subdued with each sonant wavelet, until to-day we hear it only in the whispers of peace, and the hushed prayers of the distant millions asking that Boston may not suffer.
Our losses, like our cries, go out from us to others in wave-like circles or atmospheric undulations; and the effect moves on and on, growing weaker and fainter, but nevertheless moving still onward forever.
The loss was enormous; but we met it not alone. The network of human civilization is so interwoven, that the breaking of a single thread weakens the whole web. Not alone in moral influences, art, culture, and intellectual guidance, does the world suffer with Boston; but the destruction of her warehouses makes lighter the freights of railways, the cargoes of fleets, the profits of agriculture, and the gains by foreign trade. Through non-resident stockholders, distant creditors, the insurance-companies of other cities, and the greater or the lesser demand for goods, the contagion has spread, until men thousands of miles away are poor to-day because there was a fire in Boston.
It has something more or less to do with national finances; it influences the millionnaires of Wall Street; it glides into every manufactory, and nerves or unnerves the arm of labor, according as the fire increased or decreased the demand for certain fabrics. It visits the homes of millions; and something is missed from the luxuries or comforts of life which would have been there but for the Boston fire. A stick of wood, a basket of coal, a part of a meal, or the last piece of bread, are gone; and, though the loser may not know the reason why he is deprived of such things, eternity will tell him of the Boston fire.
Working-women and working-men out of employment crowd into other pursuits or other cities, displacing many, exchanging with some, and setting in motion a train of circumstances which gives wives to the young men of the West, orators to rostrums built of primitive forest-trees, ministers of the gospel to the heathen, work for many, poverty for some, and wealth for a few. Everywhere that the habitations of men can be found will there be seen and felt some effect of that terrible overturning and destruction.
In Boston itself there is much less ruin and sorrow than the reader would suppose. The losses came upon the wealthiest men of the city, many of whom could loose as much more, and still live in opulence. Some fell under the crushing blow, but, with a courage and hope which inspires and astonishes the beholder by its sublimity, are attempting, with only debts for capital, to live, to accumulate, and to pay. The sad faces which one would naturally expect to find on the streets of Boston are not there. Christmas and New-Year’s have less of luxuriant gifts; but the same sweet, cheerful countenances are there, and the world is in many cases the brighter for it.
Ah, our much-loved Boston! we are all proud of thee to-day. Thou hast a glory now which crowns only the courageous, the virtuous, and the faithful. We have seen in thy ash-heaps and shattered façades more beauty than wealth can purchase. We have seen wrecks of buildings, but no wrecks of men. We have seen ruined storehouses, but no ruined intellects. We have witnessed the overthrow of thy temples; but no broken characters were there.
Yea, there are huge and ghastly battlements, majestic in ruin, staring at us in Boston; and one would almost think himself walking the porches of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii, the mud-walled streets of Jerusalem, or the dismal baths of Caracalla, did he not see about him the living senators instead of lazzaroni, the prophets instead of the Arabs, and the Antonys and Cæsars instead of the beggarly Roman rabble. Unstable, indeed, are thy marts of trade; but the pillars of Hercules were sooner shaken than the courage and integrity of the hearts which frequented thy commercial halls.
Man must be stone, if the generous sacrifices, the cheerful new beginnings, the strict honesty, the boundless charity, and the abiding faith in God, did not awaken pulse-quickening emotions. London built a monument in memory of her great fire, and often has she been ridiculed for it; but so much of heroic daring, so much of patient suffering, so much of love, and so much of patriotism, as one finds among the ruins of Boston, as he searches for a record, is as deserving of granite towers and memorial monuments as are the feats of Wellington at Waterloo, or Warren at Bunker Hill. He is, in truth, as much a hero who is ready to dare and to die as he to whom God has given that opportunity. Heroes there are about whom the world knows nothing; and the business-men and the working-men of Boston were of that number until the fire revealed them, as it brings forth the precious metals from the unattractive ore.
It would take years to see as it should be seen, or to tell as it should be told, the story of the fire, with its interesting ramifications; and the writer must be content with such facts as have requited his careful search.
Oh that we had the space and time to tell of the thousand instances where creditors cheerfully receipted their bills, or made large discounts to losers, without hesitation; where clerks offered to work for their old employers for insignificant wages, in order to help those ruined men into business again; and where rich and poor offered money and assistance to the unfortunate without compensation or security! But those tales must be left to volumes much larger than this.
We may have written hastily, may have erred in judgment, and have, perhaps, neglected much that should have been written; yet we close this volume with a sense of satisfaction, because we have already been rewarded with more faith in humanity, more respect for our nation, more regard for sister-communities, and, lastly, more love for brave, generous, kind-hearted Boston.