1882: The Great Fire of Haverhill


The Great Fire of Haverhill, MA


While putting together the previous thread, I ran into another "urban fire", and naturally could not help it, but share the findings with the forum members. I think that the related photographs are rather interesting. I understand that it was allegedly cold and stuff, but the "Men in Black" look somewhat strange in my opinion.


Some things are also fairly predictable by now:
  • Only two persons, firefighter Joseph St. Germain and a shoemaker George Whittier, are known to be killed.
  • A New York Times report the next day established the damage at 300 businesses destroyed and damage worth approximately $2M (in 1882 dollars).
    • I did not look for the NYT article which came out the very next morning. Below is an article published 2 days after the Fire by Decatur Daily Republican.


Decatur Daily Republican
Illinois 1882-02-20
Boston, Feb. 18 - Eighty-two shoe and leather firms, representing at least $2,500,000, are wiped out by the fire in Haverhill this morning. More than 2,000 people are thrown out of work, and the indirect loss amounts to at least $500,000 more. Haverhill is thirty-two miles north of Boston, and has an annual shoe business of over $10,000,000, and there are also woolen goods and hat factories.
  • The fire was confined to the shoe quarters. It was discovered a few minutes before midnight, in a store on Washington Street occupied by E. P. WENTWORTH, a sole-leather dealer.
  • The cause assigned is the bursting of an overheated stove. An alarm was sounded at once, and steamer No. 2 promptly responded. A heavy stream was put on in something less than eight minutes. The fire was at first thought to be only a slight one, and Chief West says it would have been, but for the bursting of steamer No. 2's hose.
  • The delay thus occasioned was most unfortunate. Two minutes later a sheet of flame seemed to wrap the entire building, and the firemen realized that they had an unusually strong enemy to cope with. The night was cold and clear, the wind blowing very strong from the north, and despite every effort of the entire fire department, the flames spread rapidly. The next building was also a wooden building.
  • In a remarkably short space of time not only ENDICOTT & ARNOLD'S but the adjacent large wooden buildings were wrapped in flames, and the air was full of sparks and flying cinders, blown by the wind. For an hour the fire confined itself to the north side of Washington street where wooden buildings prevailed, and it was hoped that the south side of the street might be saved. Such hopes were fruitless. Pieces of burning wood were blown by the wind in every direction, and at last FINLEY'S block, a brick building on the south side of Washington Street, caught fire.
  • This was the starting point in the general spread of the fire on the south side, and the rapidity with which the flames spread was strikingly similar to the events of the opposite side. The department was practically powerless, and realizing this fact, dispatches were sent by Chief West to Lawrence for aid, and the efforts of his men were directed to the saving of the wooden and brick blocks at the end of Washington and Wingate Streets. Building after building on both sides of Washington Street, was soon enveloped in flames, and proved an easy prey.
  • The entire town had by this time been alarmed, and the streets in the vicinity were thronged with excited spectators. When the fact was known that the burning district was almost exclusively occupied by shoe manufacturers and leather dealers and that the laboring interests of the city were largely confined here also, the situation may be imagined. After mowing down the entire length of both sides of Washington street and taking the buildings on the north side of Wingate street, at 4 o'clock, the flames were practically powerless to do further evil, for the simple reason that there was nothing left to burn. This will be seen more clearly from the fact that the territory burned was in the shape of triangle, of which two sides were Washington Street. At daylight Haverhill's citizens saw the best business portion of the city an unsightly ruin of smoking brick walls. By and by even the walls, relieved of their slight support, tottered and fell, and the firemen were free to tread their way over piles of brick in the centre of Washington Street. Only two persons, firefighter JOSEPH ST. GERMAINE and a shoemaker, are known to be killed. The missing persons reported are probably frightened out of town for the present. Two or three tenement houses were burned, and about eighteen families are homeless.

Year 1913: 31 y. o. Recall
Several facts and details never published about Haverhill's Great Conflagration of 1882 were recounted in an interview with former Fire Chief O.M. West on February 17, 1913, the thirty-first anniversary of the disastrous fire.
  • According to Chief West, the fire department was not well organized then. It had no modern fire apparatus with which to fight a fire of any magnitude. There were no permanent firemen. Citizens and call firemen alike heeded the call of fire. The only permanent men employed were the drivers of the three steam engines then in use. The drivers were often involved in other lines of work for the city. At the time of the fire, one of Haverhill’s steam fire engines was at the Amoskeag Fire Engine Works in Manchester, New Hampshire being overhauled. An old steamer of little worth became a temporary replacement.
  • Days before the fire, Chief West inspected the factories that were later destroyed by the fire, including the one in which the fire is believed to have started.
  • The chief had brought to the attention of building owners and shoe manufacturers alike a hazardous condition where wooden doors swung back against heated stoves. He ordered that the wooden doors be covered with tin. Instead of correcting the hazardous condition, the owners instead elected to increase the insurance on their property. A few days before the fire, Chief West appeared before the City Council to request additional fire apparatus and that the job of steam engine driver be made full time so the driver could remain at the firehouse. Since the total fire loss the year before had been only sixteen hundred dollars, council members were not receptive to his request. In those days there was no fire alarm system that would indicate a fire or its location. Instead, the old village method of alarm was often used. Citizens yelling "fire" and the ringing of church bells or a local whistle was common. The home of Chief West was at 126 Water Street, opposite the Water Street fire station that housed the "Essex" steam engine.
  • The fire was discovered at 11:45 Friday night, February 17, 1882, one of the coldest nights of the winter. The thermometer registered six degrees below zero and there was a gale blowing. Chief West was awakened from a sound sleep by his mother-in-law, Mrs. Harriet Treab. (See Note:). As Chief West hurried from his home he heard no alarm indicating a fire; he did however smell smoke from the steamer.
  • At Elm Corner he met a man who informed him that there had been a fire earlier, in a pharmacy, on Mt. Washington, but it had been extinguished. It wasn't until he proceeded to Eaton’s Corner and looked along Washington Street that Chief West saw the blaze. Realizing that it was in a wooden block and that some buildings contained inflammable material, he immediately upon arrival at the scene gave an order for additional help and had telegrams sent to fire department officials in nearby communities. Chief West highly commended the Lawrence firefighters for the heroic work they did in the intense cold, stating that they undoubtedly prevented the fire from spreading to the east side of Essex Street. At that time the water system had a pressure of only fifteen or twenty pounds and much of the hose in use that night froze up. Due to these conditions, one firefighter put water on the burning coping of one building by playing a hose onto the blaze while his fellow firefighters held him by the legs from the roof of the building involved.
  • At 5:00 am Saturday morning Chief West saw the chimney of the Tilton building on Wingate street begin to topple and shouted a warning to firefighters and spectators. His warning was too late, however, for firefighters Joseph St. Germain and George Whittier. The next day Joseph St. Germain was buried with great honors. Thousands of citizens joined in a demonstration of grief over his tragic and untimely death. Whittier, though seriously injured, recovered.
    • Note: Mrs. Harriet Treab was the wife of George C. Treab, Haverhill’s sixth fire chief who served in 1867. The Treab's daughter, Mary Amanda, married Mr. West on October 18, 1862.
    • Note: During the mid-1800's shoes were being manufactured in small Haverhill factories. In spite of the conflagration that nearly completely destroyed this small cottage shoe industry in 1882, by the 1890's, Haverhill's shoe production both quantity and quality had earned it the nickname the "Queen Slipper City" of the world.

This poem, composed by Haverhill resident William T. Dwyer around 1885, puts Haverhill's 1882, conflagration into perspective through rhyme.

We never can forget the sight, so distressing to behold,
When Washington street was bound in flames of fire that o'er it rolled.
It was a cold and windy night, and the hour of twelve was near,
When the shrill sound of the fire alarm, our citizens did hear.
Though some lay quiet in slumber, they soon arose and found,
That the business portion of the town, was burning to the ground.
The firemen soon rushed to the spot and struggled hard to save
Our city from destruction, and the grasp of Satan’s wave.
But the fire fiend then was raging, and its course they could not stay,
Till neath its hand, fine structures in a heap of ruins lay.
It really meant destruction, as it leaped up to the sky,
And those buildings fell beneath it, like the grass before the scythe.
It was a sad and thrilling scene to witness, I am sure,
And it sent a feeling to the hearts of both the rich and poor.
For the poor man from employment, was thrown upon the world,
And the rich man with his thousands, into poverty it hurled.
But still there's men undaunted, who will build again with speed,
While charity lends a helping hand to those who are in need.
And the day is not far distant when, our city you will see,
A thriving business center, as once it used to be.
And now to end my ditty, kind friends to you I say,
Bear this blow with a smile of hope, for soon it will decay.
And prosperity again will shine, on that you may rely;
Here is to old Haverhill, may its name never die.

What is this?

Crowd gathered watching small building on fire.

Some sources:

KD: It starts to appear that just about every 19th century American city, or town had suffered some sort of a major destruction blamed on a carbon copy fire. Any ideas what we could be dealing with?


Well-known member
Wonder if they tried putting out that fire with dynamite eventually...

I think the one thing that may put these utterly destructive fire theories to rest is an experiment. Find a building from around that time (late 1800s-early 1900s) and set it on fire, and let it burn. I think the reason those here on SH who are looking into these fires is because the level of destruction is mindboggling, something far past "Well they just didn't have the resources to properly put out fires." What could cause buildings like this to virtually disintegrate? Was it the quality of the bricks and mortar? Chimneys and fire pits have traditionally been made of brick for at least the last 150-200 years, I would imagine because fire does little damage to this material. And yet, here we have massive buildings made from brick and metal and they lay scattered in thousands of pieces.

Here is what I could find from the American Society of Home Inspectors:

All building materials except timber are likely to show significant loss of strength when heated above 250 ºC, strength that may not recover after cooling. Thus, it is useful to estimate the maxi maximum temperature attained in a fire. Molded glass objects soften or flow at 700 or 800 ºC. Metals form drops or lose their sharp edges as follows: 300 to 350 ºC for lead, 400 ºC for zinc, 650 ºC for aluminum and alloys, 950 ºC for silver, 900 to 1000 ºC for brass, 1000 ºC for bronze, 1100 ºC for copper and 1100 to 1200 ºC for cast iron. There are also the well-known color changes in concrete or mortar.
The development of red or pink coloration in concrete or mortar containing natural sands or aggregates of appreciable iron oxide content occurs at 250 to 300 ºC and, nor normally, 300 ºC may be taken as the transition temperature.
The physical properties and mechanisms of failure in masonry walls exposed to fire have never been analyzed in detail. Behavior is influenced by edge conditions and there is a loss of compressive strength as well as unequal thermal expansion of the two faces. For solid bricks, resistance to the effects of fire is directly proportional to thickness. Perforated bricks and hollow clay units are more sensitive to thermal shock. There can be cracking of the connecting webs and a tendency for the wythes to separate. In cavity walls, the inner wythe carries the major part of the load. Exterior walls can be subjected to more severe forces than internal walls by heated and expanding floor slabs. All types of brick give much better performance if plaster is applied, which improves insulation and reduces thermal shock.
The yield strength of steel is reduced to about half at 550 ºC. At 1000 ºC, the yield strength is 10 percent or less. Because of its high thermal conductivity, the temperature of unprotected internal steelwork normally will vary little from that of the fire. Structural steelwork is, therefore, usually insulated.

Apart from losing practically all of its load-bearing capacity, unprotected steelwork can undergo considerable expansion when sufficiently heated. The coefficient of expansion is 10-5 per degree Celsius. Young’s modulus does not decrease with temperature as rapidly as does yield strength.
So, theoretically, if these buildings were constructed from perforated/hollow clay bricks and non-insulated steel then thermal shock could cause the building to lose structural integrity. I am not sure this is a foolproof "debunking" of these fires, as there are a lot of other ancillary issues around these fires that are questionable (period of time in which they occurred, stories that don't add up, insane re-building efforts, etc). The main issue is that it is difficult to know the specific type of bricks and steel that went into the construction of these buildings. Sure, many of the structures in these fires were likely cheaply made homes of timber which burn quickly. But it is the large intricate buildings of brick, mortar, steel, and glass that have us scratching our heads.