Major fires are thankfully few and far between in Boston’s long history.
But there have been a handful of blazes significant because of the often deadly devastation they wrought as well as for the changes in fire safety they spurred.
Ursuline Convent :: August 11 and 12, 1834
A mob ransacked and immolated the Charlestown convent following specious rumors about the abuse of students at the attached school. Really, though, the incident was a product of the anti-Catholic bigotry common in much of New England at the time.
The site of the convent—which is now in Somerville and which was then in an independent Charlestown yet to be annexed by Boston—lay in ruins until it was razed in the 1870s.
Some of its bricks were incorporated into the South End’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the seat of the archdiocese of Boston.
The Great Fire :: November 9 and 10, 1872
A fire in the basement of a warehouse at 83-85 Summer Street in downtown touched off the 12-hour inferno that destroyed 776 buildings and killed 13 people.
The conflagration did lead to improvements in fire safety in new and existing Boston buildings; and also laid bare the city’s glaring inefficiencies when it came to battling blazes, including weak water pressure in often aged downtown pipes and a dearth of fire hydrants in major commercial areas.
Cocoanut Grove :: November 28, 1942
One of the deadliest fires in U.S. history, the immolation of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub at 17 Piedmont Street in Bay Village killed 492 people and injured hundreds more.
Its cause remains unclear, though theories include a busboy accidentally lighting a decorative palm tree on fire as he fixed a lightbulb (he lit a match to see) and the club’s use of a highly flammable Freon substitute for its air-conditioning system.
The Cocoanut Grove fire did lead to innovations in fire safety, including prohibitions against flammable decorations and requirements that exit signs be clearly marked and have independent sources of electricity.
It also led to innovations in treating burn and smoke-inhalation victims.
Hotel Vendome :: June 17, 1972
Firefighters had gotten the blaze in this hotel at 160 Commonwealth Avenue in Back Bay under control when part of the building collapsed. An already-weak support column weakened further by water used to battle the blaze caused the collapse.
Nine firefighters were killed—the worst loss of life to date for Boston firefighters.
The remaining hotel was converted into condos and commercial space.
In 1997, on the 25th anniversary of the disaster, officials unveiled a memorial to the nine firefighters. It is located across the street from the site of the Vendome and is pictured above.
(Additional source: Stephanie Schorow’s Boston on Fire: A History of Fires and Firefighting in Boston)