Which Great Fire?

            When the term Great Fire appears most people think first of London and Chicago but over the centuries many cities have had great fires.   

The definition used here for a great fire is:  a significant amount of property loss within a community caused by a conflagration, which often includes fatalities 

Rome, A.D. 64 – began on a breezy July day in the merchant area of the city and continued for seven days destroying 70% of the city.  Loss of life was unknown but estimated to be in the hundreds. Soldiers and slaves battled the conflagration but historians’ report they focused on public rather than private buildings.  Debate continues over whether this was an accidental or intentional fire.


“The Burning of Rome, 64 AD.”  Eyewitness to History.com


Gottschalk, Jack.  Firefighting.  New York:  DK, 2002.

New Orleans, 1788-the town summoned help for fires by pealing church bells.  However, on this day, the Franciscans wouldn’t allow them to ring.  So, no bucket brigades or hand pumps came to extinguish flames even though the people begged.  In total this five hour blazed destroyed 90% of the city, or over 850 buildings in the city with a population of over 5,000.  On this Good Friday, the church leaders lost their churches, chapels and monastery. 


Six years later, in December 1794, the rebuilt city suffers another fire.  Even though the community purchased six fire engines, low water disabled their ability to perform.  This time over 200 buildings are destroyed. 


As a result of this fire, straw and wood huts are torn down and buildings are constructed of brick with tile roofs.


Conway, Fred.  Firefighting Lore.  New Albany, IN:  FBH, 1993.

“Louisiana Timeline.”  Encyclopedia Louisiana.  20 September 2001. 


Reeves, Sally.  “French Quarter Fire and Flood.”  New Orleans French Quarter.com. 

2006.    http://www.frenchquarter.com/history/elements.php

 St. Louis,  May, 1849, with a population of 45,000, the White Cloud, a moored steamship, burst into flame, which spread to additional ships and then to the city itself.  This eleven hour blaze was finally conquered by the use of gunpowder.  Over 400 buildings were consumed as well as 23 steamers.  Only three deaths were reported.



Gottschalk, Jack.  Firefighting.  New York:  DK, 2002.

“St. Louis Fire Department History.”  City of St. Louis Fire Department.  17 Nov 2007.


Chelsea, Massachusetts, April, 1908  At 10:45 a.m. fire began in a pile of rags, put out behind a business to dry.  Gusty winds on that Palm Sunday caught the flaming fabric and deposited it onto a roof, setting it on fire.  It was extinguished by the local department, and as they were about to leave, another fire was noted, 100 yards away.  They were unable to save this structure and sparks and embers ignited a multitude of other structures.  With a department of seventy-seven men (twenty-one permanent and fifty-six call men), Chief Spencer knew he would need more manpower and summoned mutual aid from Boston, Cambridge, Everett, Haverhill, Lynn, Malden, Revere, Salem, Wakefield and Winthrop and the militia.  Ten hours later the town had lost 3,000 buildings, eighteen miles of streets, 1,800 people were displaced and nineteen people died in the flames. 


Chelsea experienced a second great fire in October of 1973 when another windy day contributed to the devastation.  Ironically, the point of ignition was 200 feet from where the fire began in 1908.  This time the loss was eighteen city blocks but no fatalities.


“The Great Chelsea Fire:  April 12, 2008.”   Chelsea Historical Society.


Hashagen, Paul.  “Rekindles:  Chelsea, Ma, April 12, 1908.”  Firehouse.  April 2008: