Revisiting the Ruins: The Great Boston Fire of 1872

Revisiting the Ruins: The Great Boston Fire of 1872

April 7–July 29, 2023 in the Calderwood Gallery

Beginning on November 9, 1872, fire ravaged Boston’s central commercial district for nearly twenty hours. By late afternoon the next day, sixty-five acres of the city lay in ruin. The fire destroyed 776 buildings, and the Boston Athenæum was spared by just two blocks. 1,000 people lost their homes and another 20,000 lost jobs. It is estimated that thirty people lost their lives. 

Many factors fueled the blaze: a horse flu epidemic, highly flammable wooden rooftops, and low water pressure, to name a few. The Great Boston Fire occurred just one year after the Great Chicago Fire (1871) and not long after the havoc of the Civil War (1861-65). Though these earlier catastrophes impacted New England, they happened hundreds of miles away. This time, Bostonians were confronted with destruction up close. 

Artists, journalists, and eyewitnesses rushed to record the devastation. Photographic technology at the time could not capture the fire as it happened, so ruins became the basis for many depictions. Photographers swarmed The Burnt District and created romanticized images of the fire’s aftermath. Newspapers printed pictures and sensationalized accounts of the disaster. Relics, written remembrances, maps, and works of art became material commemorations of the fire. Stereographs, a popular form of nineteenth-century entertainment, transported viewers to the ruins from the safety of their homes.

Not long after the fire, the rubble was cleared away to begin rebuilding, making way for the areas known today as the Financial District and Downtown Crossing. A century and a half later, what can we learn from revisiting the ruins?
Following the 150th anniversary of the Great Boston Fire, Revisiting the Ruins presents a range of media that documented the blaze and its aftermath. This exhibition will showcase powerful artifacts from a pivotal moment in Boston’s history while prompting visitors to consider how it has been remembered generations later.