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Some Great New England Fires

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

New England has a long history of “great” fires. New England has had more “great” fires than any other part of the United States. As towns and cities grew there was

a genuine need to improve fire protection. The rapid and mostly unregulated expansion of cities and industry created densely built and highly combustible urban areas. These were ripe for large fires and terrible conflagrations that could overwhelm a fire department very quickly.

Through the 19th Century firefighting technology did not keep pace the growth of towns and cities. Devastating conflagrations happened with alarming frequency. Many New England towns and cities were ravaged by terrible conflagrations that destroyed scores of buildings while many others suffered large fires that destroyed whole city blocks.

In the 20th Century configurations remained a serious threat to New England cities that had been densely built in the 19th Century. Lax fire and building codes and lax enforcement would lead to many disasters and tragedies. These are some of these


Portland, Maine 1866.

The first of New England’s “great” fires ravaged Portland, Maine on July 4, 1866. This was the worst fire yet in an American city. About 1800 buildings were destroyed and about 10,000 people were left homeless. Fortunately, only two people died.


Boston 1872

Among the best known “great fires” in American history is the Great Boston Fire. On November 9, 1872, a fire started in the basement of a warehouse on Summer Street in Boston. At 7:24 p.m. Box 52 was transmitted. By 8 p.m. the fire had escalated to a general alarm, bringing all of Boston’s 21 engine and six ladder companies to the fire. Calls for aid were sent across New England.

Firefighters and apparatus arrived from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire. Among the apparatus sent to Boston was a pair of Amoskeag steam fire engines. One was Amoskeag No. 1, which was operated by the Manchester Fire Department. The second was the first self-propelled steam fire engine that Amoskeag had built in 1867, and which still was owned by Amoskeag.

Firefighters were hindered by poor water pressure and an inadequate number of hydrants. Gas streetlamps and ruptured gas lines fed the fire. Complicating matters further was the lack of standardization of hydrant and hose couplings, which made it difficult for out-of-town steam fire engines to get water from Boston’s hydrants.

The fire was contained the next morning. About 65 acres were burned and 776 buildings were destroyed. Damage was estimated at $73.5 million, which is about $1.5 billion in 2020 dollars. Sources vary on the death toll, which was between 13 and 20 and included two Boston firemen. Boston’s Chief Engineer John Damrell saw many lessons to be learned from the fire, its causes and the struggle to extinguish it. This was the catalyst for him to establish the National Association of Fire Engineers in 1873. The organization later became the International Association for Fire Engineers. The organization continues today as the International Association of Fire Chiefs. It is part of the enduring legacy of New England firefighting on the American fire service.


The Great Roxbury Fire of 1894

The Great Boston Fire of 1872 was not the last “great” fire in Boston. The Great South End Grounds Fire of 1894 is almost completely forgotten today. The fire sometimes is called the Great Roxbury Fire. The South End Grounds was a baseball park that was built in 1871. It was the home of the Boston Beaneaters baseball team. In 1888 a large double deck grandstand was built.

On May 15, 1894, during the third inning of a game between the Boston Beaneaters, the predecessors of the Boston Braves, and the Baltimore Orioles, a fire erupted in the right field bleachers. The fire quickly consumed the bleachers and then the grandstand and high winds spread the fire to the houses nearby. Flames overran some of the first arriving companies and at three steam fire engines had to be abandoned. Four alarms were transmitted within 30 minutes and the fire was contained in about an hour. In this space of time, the fire consumed more than 100 structures over an area of more than 10 acres. Almost 2000 people lost their homes. No one was killed.


Waterbury, Connecticut, 1902

The first great fire of the 20th Century in New England was on February 2, 1902, in Waterbury, Connecticut. This conflagration destroyed 42 buildings over an area of about three acres in the city of about 50,000 residents. The wind-driven fire quickly exceeded the resources of Waterbury’s six steam fire engines and 161 paid and call firefighters, who were augmented by three volunteer companies. Help came from the cities of Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Torrington, Naugatuck and Watertown. After an intense and frigid night of firefighting, the fire was extinguished the next day. Damage was estimated to be two-million dollars. When motor fire apparatus started to proliferate, Waterbury would be one of the first departments to motorize.


The 1908 Chelsea Fire

Dense urban environments posed many fire risks and presented the constant risk of conflagration. In 1908 Chelsea was one of the most densely populated city in Massachusetts with a population of about 32,000 living in 2.21 square miles. On April 12 at about 11 a.m. an alarm was transmitted for a fire at the Boston Blacking Company. Chelsea firefighters quickly knocked down this fire. Unfortunately, gale force winds had carried embers to many neighboring wood frame structures, several of which soon were burning. The multiple fires quickly were beyond the resources of the Chelsea Fire Department and grew into conflagration.

Firefighters and apparatus were called in from many neighboring communities, but the strong winds made their task almost impossible. The fire was checked only when it reached the Chelsea Creek. Nineteen people died and about 15,000 were left homeless by the fire that consumed 350 acres and about 2500 buildings.


Bangor, Maine, 1911

On April 30, 1911, Bangor, Maine, was ravaged by a conflagration that burned through the night before being controlled on May 1. Bangor was a city of about 27,000 with an all horse-drawn fire department with four steam fire engines, two of which were more than 40 years old, and two hook and ladder trucks. Bangor had 21 paid full-time firemen who were supplemented by 88 paid call firefighters and some volunteers. At about 4 p.m. the fire department responded to a structure fire on Broad Street. The fire department confined the fire to three structures on Broad Street and appeared to have made a good stop. However, high winds carried embers from the fire across the city.

About 30 minutes after the first fire was extinguished, two additional alarms were sounded. One for the Universalist Church, which was about a half mile from the original fire, and the other at a warehouse about 1000 feet from the original fire. A call for help was sent to other communities, but it was about 9 p.m. before help started to arrive. Old Town, Brewer and Waterville each sent one steamer. By special trains, Gardiner sent three steam fire engines from 83 miles away and Portland, 137 miles away, sent seven engines. Despite the determined efforts of firefighters, about 400 buildings were destroyed. Two men were killed, including one firefighter.


Great Salem Fire of 1914

The Great Salem Fire of 1914 was fought by 22 steam fire engines, seven motor pumping engines and about 40 other pieces of apparatus. One of the remarkable facts about the Great Salem Fire is that all of the 21 fire departments present had adopted standard hose couplings after the 1872 Great Boston Fire and all were able to work together seamlessly in Salem.

Despite this concerted effort, the Great Salem Fire destroyed about 1400 buildings. In a city of 48,000, it left about 20,000 people homeless and 10,000 people jobless. It was one of the worst conflagrations in New England history. The fire did more than $150 million in damage, which, when adjusted for inflation, would be about $4 billion today.


The Great Fall River Fire of 1928

Some of the greatest fires in New England had no fatalities. For example, the Great Fall River Fire of 1928, which occurred on February 2 and 3, destroyed a vast portion of downtown Fall River, Massachusetts, but no one was killed. This was the most destructive of several conflagrations to ravage Fall River.

The fire started shortly before 6 p.m. in an old mill complex and ultimately destroyed an area of about five square blocks before it was contained at about 2 a.m. Firefighters came from as far away as Boston. Bitter cold and high winds hampered firefighters. Although there was no loss of life, the destruction of so many businesses hurt the local economy, which already was suffering from the closure of several textile mills.


The Cocoanut Grove Fire 1942

Some of the “greatest” fires were not very big fires. Some never spread beyond their building of origin. Such was the Cocoanut Grove Fire. The Cocoanut Grove was a popular nightclub in Boston that on the night of November 28, 1942, was operating well beyond its legal capacity of 460. At about 10:15 p.m., a fire started in a basement lounge and spread rapidly. The fire killed 492 people and was the deadliest single building fire in America since 1903. It remains the deadliest fire in New England history.


The Hartford Circus Fire of 1944

New England would be touched by another heart-breaking tragedy on July 6, 1944. That afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was performing under the big top to an audience of about 7000 people. The Circus’ canvas tent was the largest in America. It could seat about 9000 people, was about 450 feet long, 200 feet wide and weighed about 19 tons. Six poles raised the tent to a maximum height of about 75 feet. The tent had been waterproofed by 1800 pounds of paraffin wax that had been dissolved with gasoline.

A fire broke out during the 2:15 p.m. show. The first alarm was transmitted at 2:44 p.m. and immediately was followed by a second. Flames spread incredibly fast and within ten minutes the tent had collapsed and was consumed by flames. In the aftermath, 125 people were dead and more than 700 injured. Over the next six weeks 42 more victims died from their injuries. On July 6, 2005, a memorial to the memory of the victims was dedicated at the site of the fire.



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