On July 30, 1794, a huge fire took place in the Ropewalk District. A ropewalk is a long narrow shed or path where rope is weaved by hand. Material used in the production of rope is highly flammable. The Ropewalk District was located in a marshy area bounded by today's Milk, Pearl, Purchase and Congress Streets. The fire was caused by the accidental ignition of tar, and the ropewalks were quickly engulfed in flames and were spread in a southeasterly direction by gusts of wind. In 1794, Purchase Street was located at the shoreline, which created a fire break and greatly prevented spread of the flames.
The Selectmen of Boston were so appalled by the swiftness of this fire, that they actually gave land to the disaster victims to facilitate construction of new ropewalks in a remote area of the town (a marsh that eventually became part of the Public Garden). The ropewalks were located there until about 1824.
The following is a newspaper account of the fire published in the August 1, 1794 [Boston] Mercury:
"Wednesday morning, about four o'clock, the melancholy cry of fire grated on the ears of our citizens. They immediately assembled to stop, if possible, the ravages of this destructive element. The fire caught in the Rope Walk of Mr. Howe, by an accident in heating some tar, and before the Inhabitants could be alarmed and assembled, it had gained so great a head as to render abortive all attempts to secure, from the flames, any of those elegant and valuable Rope Walk, which formed a row from Milk street, to the west part of Fort Hill; their attention, therefore, was turned to the preservation of the dwelling houses, which from the intense heat arising from the burning tar and hemp, were taking fire in every direction, at the distance of several rods.
In the first commencement of the fire, there was very little wind from any point, but in a few moments it came on to blow very fresh from the north, and so continued [until] all the flames were stopped by their arrival at the water side.
By this accident, many citizens, who by many years laborious industry had acquired a little property — in one instant in the 'twinkling of an eye' are reduced to poverty. But it is beyond a doubt, that the outstretched hand of liberality from every individual, will in part indemnify them; but this part can be but final. No actual calculation has been made; but almost every opinion is that the loss of property by this fire is far superior to the loss by the fire at the South end.
It is with pleasure we acknowledge the executions of our brethren from the country, which on this, as on many former occasions, were unremitted and highly serviceable. These circumstances will still father bind the bonds of friendship, and do away ridiculous local prejudices. From the towns of Cambridge, Charlestown. Watertown, Brooklyn, Milton, and Roxbury, engines were sent.
The following are among others whose losses are less considerable.
Mr. Howe's rope-walk, where the fire began.
Mr. Jeffrey Richardson's rope-walk, 3 dwelling houses, and large brick store.
Mr. Emmon's rope-walk and dwelling house.
Mr. Codman's rope walk and store.
Mr. Davis' rope-walk, and a large brick dwelling house.
Mr. Torry's rope-walk.
Houses in Green's Lane
Mr. Appleton's large dwelling house, in which was kept the Loan
office, barns, &c.
Mr. Lamb's dwelling house.
Mr. McNeil's dwelling house.
Mr. James Thwing's new dwelling house.
A small house of Mr. Clement's
Mr. Wheelwright's dwelling house,
Another dwelling house adjacent.
Mr. Daniel Sargeant's dwelling house.
Mr. Brewer's dwelling house, barns, &c.
Capt. Cowell's dwelling house, and adjacent houses.
Mr. Hearsey's two small dwelling houses — with a row of small buildings.
Besides which, in the other streets there were.
Several dwelling houses, occupied by Col. Winslow, and others.
Mr. George Blanchard's dwelling house, barn, carts, trucks, &c.
Mr. White’s small house and gardens, owned by Col. Dawes.
A large dwelling house of the widow Gray's occupied by Mr. James Perkins.
Mr. Russell's large store, and a number of stores on the wharf.
Mr. Dillaway's dwelling house, (said to be sold to Mr. Samuel Bangs a few days before) and a large quantity of lumber.
A number of stores on Tileston's wharf. All the stores and buildings on Col. Dawes's wharf, chiefly improved by Capt. Nehemiah Some — and a carpenter's shop on said wharf, improved by Mr. Oliver Wiswall. Mr. Dawes's loss was near said.
Capt. Somes' store.
Mr. Solomon Cotton and son's dwelling house, shop, &c.
Besides the above, a large number of small dwelling houses, barns, stores, &c &c. Indeed, almost the whole stock of hemp, cordage, tar, &c, in the rope walks, were entirely consumed.
The January 31, 1794 American Apollo also published an article about the fire:
"Yesterday morning about 4 o'clock a fire broke out in the Rope Walk of Mr. Edward Howe, situate[d] in the S.E. part of this Town and in the middle of six other Rope walks, all of which containing very great property were entirely consumed; the wind being fresh at N.W., the flames communicated to the neighboring houses, and the greater part of the houses in Atkinson Street, including the Continental Loan Office and extending to the Stores and Wharves of Thomas Russell Esq. Mr. Dillaway, Col. Dawes, and the late Mr. Tileston were soon reduced to Ashes — with great difficulty and by the most strenuous exertions some of the Houses on the Westerly sides of Atkinson Street were saved which prevented the Devastation from extending to Federal Street. It is impossible to ascertain the loss with accuracy but it is generally imposed to be not much short of £200,000."
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