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Boston Steam Bakery Fire, 1859

On February 7, 1859, a huge fire took place on Commercial Street in the North End. The Boston Steam Bakery building had taken two years to construct, and then suddenly burned to the ground after only five days after commencing operation. The fire was discovered at about 2:30 am, and by 3:30, the heavy roof caused the exterior walls to bow out and collapse. Two people tragically lost their lives as a result. It was extremely fortunate that the flaming debris from the collapse did not spread the fire to several other nearby wooden structures in this densely constructed and populated neighborhood.

It is likely the fire was caused by arson. The watchdog had been stolen the previous night, and the security guard assigned to the building on the night of the fire was startled by a noise and then discovered a heap of boxes ablaze on the third floor. It was conjectured at the time that a competitor or adversary of the owner had started the fire. The following is an account from 1859 that describes the destruction of the Boston Steam Bakery:

"The new mammoth Steam Bakery on Commercial street, making the corners both of Salutation and Battery street, Boston, was discovered to be on fire on the morning of Sunday, February 6, 1859, about half-past 2 o'clock. Though discovered at an early period, the efforts to save it were fruitless, and the immense building, together with several in the neighborhood, was destroyed. The fire was attended by a large destruction of property, and also, we regret to state, by the loss of human life.

The building was six stories in height with a width of 64 feet, and a depth of 130 feet. It was surrounded with the exception of the front with numerous mostly wooden, of inferior size and value. The front portion, with the exception of the salesroom, was occupied as a warehouse for the storage of flour, extending through the six stories; and the rear, by the extensive Steam Bakery, owned by Joseph G, Russell, a gentleman well known in that city for his wealth and enterprise.

The fire was discovered in the fourth story among some boxes or troughs, used to set the dough before being made into loaves. Several of these had been filled with shavings, to which the torch of the incendiary was applied. There were four men, two were watchmen, on the premises at the time, and two were at work in the building; but such was the speed of the flames, that they had gained considerable headway before the alarm was given. The Fire Department rallied to the scene of conflagration with its accustomed celerity, and the two steam machines [water pumping trucks] were promptly on hand, yet before either had got fairly into playing condition, the flames were spreading upwards and outwards with fearful rapidity. For a time, so great was the height of the building, that but little water could be brought to bear; but in time the adjacent dock appeared to the belching up its exhaustless contents. The steam machines once fairly in operation, vast quantities of the aqueous element were thrown upon the devastating flames. Finding the destruction of the building inevitable, the efforts of the department were devoted mainly to saving the buildings in the immediate vicinity, of which there was a large number, and of wood for the most part.

About half-past 3 o'clock, the front wall of the Bakery building, which was of granite, fell into Commercial street, accompanied by a tremendous crash, spreading dismay and consternation in every direction. It was an immense mass, and its fall endangered hundreds of lives. Just as it fell, Cataract Engine Company No. 4 was passing through Battery street. The leading man upon the rope had reached Commercial street. An [African American] man named Daniel Henson, who had been attached to the company for several years, though not a member, was instantly killed by the falling mass. His back and both legs, near the thigh, were broken, and his skull was fractured. Those near him escaped injury as if by miracle. Henson was upon the right side of the rope; the man immediately adjoining on the left, escaped. It was a narrow escape for some dozen of the men. 

Thousands of persons visited the scene of devastation the next day. The locality was enclosed with ropes, and policemen were stationed to guard them. The two steamers were at work all day. The remaining wall of the building was pulled down on Tuesday, Mr. Russell having employed a gang of men for the purpose.

The Bakery was only started on Wednesday the 2nd of February. Mr. Russell had been nearly two years in preparing the machinery &tc.

The Cataract Engine Company attended the funeral of Henson, which took place at Father Henson's church Joy street. The body was deposited at the receiving tomb at Woodlawn Cemetery. The Boston Fire Department were invited to attend the funeral. The young man was a nephew of Father Henson, a minister in Boston.

There are circumstances of the most singular nature connected with the fire, and which indicate that it was not only the work of an incendiary, but by parties who were actuated by the basest of motives. The watch-dog of the establishment was stolen on the preceding Friday, with the view as is supposed, to cause an explosion. Fortunately when the coal was placed in the furnace, it did but little damage except to harm the fireman, who was confined to his house for some time. From certain movements, Mr. Russell had reason to anticipate injury from interested quarters, and went over the establishment as late as 1 o'clock on Saturday night, to see if everything was safe. It is not uncommon, when a great interest or department in trade is injured by any unusual enterprise, that those so injured retaliate in a manner having no regard for reason or justice.. Perhaps this was a case of this nature.

Immediately upon the falling of the front wall, the flames appeared to gather new force, as if freed from their pent up confines, and shot up and out with great brilliancy and force. The firemen, however were compelled to use great caution, the remainder of the tall walls threatening destruction at every moment.

The building, the Bakery excepted, was filled with flour, on storage, and owned by various parties. There was 18,000 barrels, necessarily making a ponderous weight, which pressed heavily on the sides of the building. The support of the roof no sooner being removed by the flames, than the heavy front was forced out and those of the two sides soon followed.

On Salutation street the destruction was extensive, and the scene was one confused mass of ruins. The building on the corner and nearest the Bakery, a two-story wooden structure, owned by Deacon Eben Shute, of the first police, and occupied by Googins & Stodder, provision dealers, making 370 Commercial Street, was demolished by the descending wall. The prostration and destruction were complete, and was a scene of ruins, indeed such as is rarely witnessed. The adjoining building, 368, also owned by Mr. Shute, was injured somewhat, a portion of the roof having been forced in, and a chimney or two thrown down. It was occupied in part by Joseph Visall, hair-dresser.

In the rear of Mr. Shute's on Salutation street was a two-story wooden building, owned by Abraham Allcock, and occupied by himself and also by John Hammond and man named Brown. This was ruined, the loss being about $1000. Mr. Allcock was found in the cellar badly injured. He was taken to the Webster House, where his wounds were dressed, and from thence to the Hospital, where he died on the 16th of February. He was 75 years of age and a single man. The building No. 17 immediately in the rear of the Bakery, a three story dwelling house, owned by John Woolly, was entirely destroyed by a falling wall. It was occupied by five families. 
No. 18 was occupied by Thomas Williams. The roof of the building was partially demolished. It was owned by widow Oliver.

Among those who were injured, not mentioned before, were officer Wm. Hunt of the Harbor police, who had the bones in one of his hands broken; Luther White, who came near losing his life while in a house on Salutation street, when the southern wall fell; Frank Mansur, a machinist, living at 62 Albany Street, had one leg broken; Chief Engineer Bird and Assistant N.W. Pratt, were hit by falling bricks; Capt Calvin C, Wilson, of the steam fire engine Eclipse, was struck in the back, and several others. None of the injuries proved fatal except that of Mr. Allcock. 

A fireman living in Salutation street within a stone's throw of the building, says he was awakened at the first alarm, and before he could get out of doors, the entire structure was wrapped in flames. When the fireman placed the ladders against the wall, which in falling caused the death of the faithful colored man, they had no idea that the conflagration had made such headway in the interior of the building. A watchman had been kept in the establishment day and night. On Saturday night, Mr. Russell's last act previous to leaving the building was to see that all the inner as well as the outer doors were secure, and to give special directions to the engineer and fireman, who had agreed to remain through the right, to keep a vigilant lookout. He then left by the front door, locking it after him. Sometime afterwards, the men who were in the basement hearing a noise in the third story, rushed up stairs, and to their astonishment found in some boxes, which were heaped up around a post, a basket of shavings with a lighted jet of gas turned upon it. The basket and contents were all on fire and the flames had already communicated with the flooring above, which was directly over the oven, and of course very dry.

The men seized the basket and threw it down the scuttle into the basement where it landed under a flight of stairs setting them on fire; and finding that there was no possibility of their stopping the progress of the flames they gave the alarm. Mr. Russell, who had barely reached his residence in Temple street, hearing the alarm, and seeing the light of the fire in the direction of his establishment, hastened thence, and found the front door open. — he having locked it but a short time previous, putting the key in his pocket. He also found some of the inner doors open which he had fastened previous to leaving for the night. — he having locked it but a short time previous, putting the key in his pocket. He also found some of the inner doors open which he had fastened previous to leaving for the night."

Historical Location:

376 Commercial Street 
Boston, MA 02109

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