One of the greatest fires in Boston's history took place on Friday, April 20, 1787. About 100 buildings were totally destroyed by fire in the southern part of the town. A strong southwesterly wind drove the flames to the water's edge at the old West bay in the Charles River, which prevented more dwellings from being burned. The fire started at Washington and Beach Streets, and spread southerly to where the Tufts New England Medical Center now stands. It was low tide when the fire broke out, causing a severe water shortage for fighting the fire.
What could have been a single-building fire became an inferno due to dry conditions and gusting winds. It was reported that light from the fire could be seen from 50 miles away, which is astounding. The April 26, 1787 Continental Journal describes this terrible disaster:
"About sun-set on Friday last, a fire broke out in the malt-house of Mr. William Patten, in Beach Street, a little to the north-east of Orange [Washington] street, at the south part of the town; and it is with real sorrow we announce, that the devastation which ensued, within about three hours time, was never equaled in this place, excepting in the years 1711 and 1760, since its first settlement.
The malt-house, on the discovery of the fire, was almost instantly in flames, which immediately communicated to 2 or 3 of the nearest building; but, these being consumed, and one end of the dwelling house of Mr. Pierce much burnt, the progress of the fire was here stopped.
The wind blowing stretch from the Northward, the coals of fire; burning shingles, &c, were, however, carried, in great quantities and lodged on the roofs of many of the houses in Orange street, some of which were instantly on fire, while a number of the interfacing buildings were preserved. It raged on both sides of this street, with awful fury, as long as the current of wind was nearly parallel with the direction of it; but coming to that part which inclines a little more south-easterly, and the wind tending something more to the eastward, the fire was stopped in this street, but raged towards the west side of it, till an opening of vacant land towards the bay, on the west side of Boston neck prevented further destruction.
Among the buildings which early took fire from the flying coals and cinders was the Rev. Mr. Wight's meeting house, on whose extended roof great quantities of them lodged; which rendered every efforts save it impracticable; but the fire being communicated, by means of a burning shingle to the spire, just below the vane, at the height of more than 130 feet from the ground, was a singular circumstance, and, by the pieces of burning wood falling from thence on the roof, facilitated the destruction of that large edifice, and with it that of the surrounding buildings.
The place where the fire commenced being remote from most of the engines —the dryness of the weather — 10 or 15 buildings being in flames in a few minutes after the fire began, which greatly divided the attention of the inhabitants — the scarcity of water, the tide being down, and but few pumps near at hand were circumstances which baffled the utmost efforts of the citizens for putting a stop to the devouring elements for the space of upwards of three hours.
The destruction extended, on the east side of Orange street, from Mr. Knapp's to Mr. Bradford's and on the west side, from Mrs. Inches' to Mr. Osborne's. About one hundred buildings were destroyed, sixty of which were dwelling houses. Most of the latter were handsome, and a number of them elegant and costly edifices. The loss in house furniture, bedding, and other necessary articles, together with goods and effects of various kind, is very great, and with the loss of so many valuable dwellings loudly calls upon the benevolent and humane to afford their aid in alleviating of the distresses unfortunate suffers.
Many persons, at the beginning of the fire, deposited their goods and furniture near the meeting house, which they then deemed from its remote situation, to be a place of safety; but they were unhappily disappointed, great quantities being destroyed before they could be removed a second time.
We are happy, however, in informing the public, that, amidst the destruction by the fire a curious specimen of art and industry, which does honor to our country, was luckily preserved; we mean the ORRERY construction by Mr. JOSEPH POPS. This admirable performance, the result of many years labour and study, is near six feet in diameter, and was almost finished, when the house of the artist with most of his effects, were in a few minutes reduced to ashes. Much praise is due to those gentlemen, who, by their exertions, preserved to the lovers of science, this curious specimen of philosophic and mechanic ingenuity, and deposited it at the house of his Excellency the Governor, where, we are told, it still, remains.
The inhabitants of Charlestown, Cambridge, Medford, Roxbury, Dorchester and Milton, with several engines, kindly afforded their assistance in helping to extinguish the fire. The light of the fire was plainly seen near 50 miles distant."
Origin of the Great Boston Fire of 1787
Beach & Washington Streets, Boston, MA 02111