This Week in New England: The Great Boston Fire of 1760

Buckets used to fight fires in Boston in the 1700’s
Courtesy of the Boston Fire Museum

By Carla Charter

In March of 1760 Boston had dealt with several fires. None like the fire of March 20, 1760. The fire now known as the Great fire of that year.

The fire began at 2 a.m. on Cornhill now known as Washington Street. The fire was prevented from spreading North and South but soon went East toward the harbor destroying buildings in its path. With a change in Wind direction the fire soon consumed more homes, a tavern and a warehouse on the wharf.

On the southeastern side the fire spread to Water and Milk streets to Fort Hill and toward the battery where a large deposit of gunpowder was moved just in time, before the fire reached the area. The rest however were ignited and caused a huge explosion which was heard as far as Hampton, New Hampshire.

Fires were always a threat in Boston, considering the city’s position on a peninsula and the regular use of candles and fireplaces, in those days.  Equipment to fight these blazes consisted only of hand pumpers and bucket brigades.

 

David Perry, a sailor from Nova Scotia, recorded in his journal: “[W]e were billeted out at the house of a widow, named Mosely; and while we were here the town took fire in the night. It originated in a tavern . . . at about midnight, the wind in the north-west and pretty high; and in spite of all we could do with the engines, &c. it spread a great way down King’s Street, and went across and laid all that part of the town in ashes, down to Fort Hill. We attended through the whole, and assisted in carrying water to the engines. The number of buildings burnt was about three hundred.”

Volunteers and members of the Boston Fire Society joined the “engine companies” with their hand-pumped “fire engine” to combat the blaze that broke out in Boston in the early morning of March 20, 1760.

In the end of the Great Fire of 1760, 174 homes, 175 warehouses shops and other buildings were destroyed. Two hundred and twenty families were left homeless. Amazingly no one died in the blaze and there were only 9 injuries.

After the fire help poured in from not only from those in Massachusetts but also from Pennsylvania, New York, Nova Scotia and several places in the British Empire.

The Massachusetts legislature passed new laws to improve fire safety standard with wooden buildings over seven feet tall having fines placed upon them and a committee being appointed to re-lay the narrow roads of the burnt district.

A 1792 ‘hand-tub’ fire engine made by Ephraim Thayer, an apprentice of Paul Revere, is only display at the Boston Fire Museum, 344 Congress Street, South Boston.  The Museum is open on Saturdays from 11AM to 4:30PM. More information about the museum can be found at  http://www.bostonfiremuseum.com

More on-line history of the Boston Fire department can be found at

http://www.bostonfirehistory.org/