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The disaster that reshaped a city

Great Fire of 1872 retold on film

Someone predicted it. Powerful men with no experience managing disasters were accused of worsening it. Looters and others who refused to evacuate complicated it.

There are eerie similarities between Boston's Great Fire of 1872 and the Gulf Coast's Hurricane Katrina. Though small by comparison, the fire destroyed much of downtown and still ranks as the fifth-most-destructive fire in the nation's history, in terms of property loss, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The fire also changed the shape of Boston.

The blaze erupted at a dry goods store at Summer and Kingston streets on a Saturday evening in November. The financial district, then called Fort Hill, was consumed, leaving nearly 1,000 people homeless and 20,000 jobless. Boston Fire Chief John Stanhope Damrell had predicted the disaster after the Chicago fire of 1871 and had begged for new, multi-outlet hydrants and bigger water pipes for six years.

Damrell was the inspiration for a nearly completed documentary called ''Damrell's Fire," produced locally by former software businessman Bruce Twickler, 59, and his Cambridge studio, Docema. The film will air in April on PBS stations.

The City Council rejected Damrell's requests, which also included an engine and more water for the district. At the time of the fire, out-of-town fire crews could not use the outdated hydrants. Looters slowed the fight against the fire, as did shop owners who were trying to empty their stores. Influential but untrained men with ties to City Hall went against the fire chief's wishes and used gunpowder to blow up buildings in the fire's path, hoping to create a firebreak, but only succeeded in fanning the flames.

''None of the gunpowder team knew anything," Twickler said. ''They had a meeting at City Hall and just started blowing things up in a completely uncoordinated way. They probably prolonged the fire by three to four hours."

Narrow streets, wooden roofs that were too high to reach with hoses, and an outbreak of horse influenza that left men pulling the engines all ensured that the fire would leap quickly from roof to roof and become a firestorm. Since it was a Saturday evening, the district was mostly empty; it took about 15 minutes to find a police officer to sound an alarm.

Damrell marshaled available forces -- about 50 fire crews from around New England responded -- to make a desperate stand against the fire along Washington Street. Wet blankets and carpets were tossed on roofs, which were continually hosed down.

After 20 hours, the fire was stopped before reaching the Old South Meeting House, and, unlike the Chicago fire, the rest of the city was saved. Damrell became a hero, and Boston survived, changed, and grew.

''That's inherently dramatic, and when I discovered that a fire of such magnitude was successfully fought by Damrell, I knew there was a good story in that," Twickler said. ''I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could rebuild the Boston of 1872 and have a 19th-century city be one of the characters in the story?' " Using architectural drawings found at the Boston Public Library and the Boston Athenaeum, early photos taken at 1,200 feet from a hot-air balloon in 1860, and 3-D computer software, Twickler and his Cambridge studio recreated Boston circa 1872.

Boston lost 776 buildings, including Trinity Church, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and the Shreve, Crump & Low jewelry store, as the fire spread over 65 acres. Nearly everything from Washington Street to Boston Harbor and between Summer and State streets was ruined.

''The style of building was contemporary, Second Empire, like Paris of the same time," he said. ''Although . . . mostly factories and warehouses, they looked like quite beautiful buildings."

The destruction only fueled Boston's appetite for expansion. Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, Allston, Brighton, and Charlestown were all annexed soon afterward. The Back Bay quickly became a new center of culture and upscale living, anchored by Copley Square, where the Old South Church, the original Museum of Fine Arts, and H.H. Richardson's new building for Trinity Church were built just after the fire.

''The city is running out of room at that point, penned into narrow streets," said Suffolk University's Robert Allison, author of ''A Short History of Boston." ''The Back Bay becomes a luxurious neighborhood, and that alleviates some of the pressure. The fire accelerates a more pressing need to do this, to create a metro area, to move people to the outlying areas."

Boston's downtown was rapidly recreated. ''The city was rebuilt in a remarkably short time," said Boston College's Thomas O'Connor, author of ''The Hub: Boston Past and Present."

''That's a sign of its prosperity, the importance of being in Boston to economic success. People could have moved away and set up business elsewhere, but the historic appeal and the cultural appeal of Boston was too strong. It's the same as New Orleans natives not wanting to live in Florida."

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