Damrell’s Fire

In case you are ever tempted to believe that rich people are perforce wise

John Stanhope Damrell was the fire chief of Boston, Massachusetts, and didn’t just fight fire; he studied it. He had a passion for saving lives and property. But this story is only partly about him; it’s also about his bosses.

In 1871 when fire swept through Chicago, Illinois, killing about three hundred people, destroying seventeen thousand, five hundred buildings, Damrell wanted to know why. He had a hunch that Boston embodied similar risks.

Traveling with an assistant he toured the ashes of Chicago. He interviewed people, made notes, took measurements. Then he went back to Boston to write his report.

Comparing Chicago to Boston, he found disturbing parallels. His recommendations included bigger water pipes, flow capacity, pumping and ladder engines, certain streets wider, and improvements in building standards. He didn’t want Boston to suffer Chicago’s fate. Yes, he said, it will cost money, but Chicago’s losses exceeded $222 million dollars (four and a half billion dollars in today’s money). And Boston had all the same vulnerabilities as Chicago.

At the time, Boston was led by a group of wealthy men known as the “Brahmans”. Captains of industry, finance, and commerce, they heard Damrell’s report and… rejected it. They just couldn’t see how any of those expensive proposals would make a difference. They basically told him to ‘stick to fighting fires’.

Then in November of 1871, fire started in a six-story building in Boston’s business district. The epic, heroic story of how Damrell and his men fought that fire to a standstill, limiting its reach to 700 buildings and a handful of fatalities, could be a summer blockbuster.

“Chief Engineer John Damrell was in command at the fire, but his attention was frequently interrupted by city officials seeking meetings to discuss strategy and the political impact of the fire.”

Boston after 1872 fire

You would think the Brahmans would give Damrell an award. Well, not so much “award” as “hauled into an inquiry and made to account for why he let that fire happen and do so much damage”. By 1874 Damrell was pushed out, forced into retirement.

But he didn’t exactly retire; he went on to found the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the driving force behind the first US national fire code. He is the reason US cities stopped burning to the ground in the early 20th century.

The “Brahmans”? Well they went on being rich and respected and in-charge. But eventually even Boston had to adopt an updated fire code in spite of them.