From being mankind’s best ally, fire has also been a great destructive force. Here is a list of 10 American cities that have faced major fire accidents but were rebuilt into stronger more prosperous centers.
New York City, New York
Dates: September 21, 1776; December 16, 1835
On September 21, 1776, just about nine days after the British forces occupied the city of New York, fire broke out in the Fighting Cocks Tavern (West End of the city at the time). The furious blaze, aided by strong dry winds and high temperatures, blazed on and destroyed most of the city. It is estimated that some 493 of the city’s 4,000 houses were destroyed.
Before New York could be rebuilt into the glitzy powerhouse that it is today, the city had to face the ravages of a great fire once more, in 1835. A ruptured gas line and a coal stove were enough to cause the fire that was fanned into a frenzy by the crisp winter winds. Frozen waters deterred any firefighting efforts and the fire caused much damage to New York City. Over 17 blocks of the city turned to ashes and damages were estimated to be of about USD 20 million. Two casualties were also reported.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Dates: March 21, 1788; December 8, 1794
Another city that has faced the ravages of two great fires is New Orleans in Louisiana. The first fire started off on a Good Friday at a private residence. The insistence of the church that its bells not be rung as a warning sign compounded the lack of firefighters. It took the blaze a mere 5 hours to burn down most of the city (corresponding roughly to modern day French Quarters). Records say 856 out of 1,100 structures in the city were burned. Another fire broke out in 1794 burning down 212 buildings.
Date: October 8-10, 1871
Chicago, the Windy City in Illinois, hadn’t received much rainfall in over three months. That, along with a severely under-equipped fire department, made conditions for a great blaze just right. On October 8, 1871, a small fire started in a cow barn in Chicago’s West Side. The fire quickly spread and consumed about 17,450 buildings in the city and killing about 300 people. The fire raged on till October 10 covering a 3.5 square mile area. Some 100,000 people were rendered homeless and total damages were pegged at USD 200 million. Following the Great Chicago Fire, a massive reconstruction effort was undertaken and this was the foundation of Chicago as we now know it.
Date: October 8, 1871
Peshtigo in Wisconsin is often referred to as “The City Rebuilt from the Ashes”. On the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, a catastrophic forest fire claimed between 1,500 to 2,500 lives in and around Peshtigo. Despite having covered an area of about 2,400 square miles, the fire – one of the largest forest fires in North America – remains largely forgotten. Widely believed to have been set off by a firestorm and strong winds that blew across the region, Peshtigo fire got its name from the city that suffered most damages. The fire continued to burn for many days till the firestorm died a natural death and the rains came.
Date: November 9-10, 1872
A small fire in the basement of a warehouse on Kingston Street was the humble beginning of the Great Boston Fire of 1872, one of the most destructive fires in the history of the US. The dry wood roofs and sweeping winds quickly worked up the flames that spread through most of the city. While firefighters from New Haven, Connecticut and nearby places arrived, lack of water and equipment plagued rescue efforts. Through the next 12 hours, the fire destroyed most of Boston’s financial district and killed over 30 people. 776 houses and offices were destroyed and the total damages were estimated at about USD 73.5 million. The fire had ravaged about 65 acres by the time it could be contained. The reconstruction, however, gave Boston the opportunity to rebuild a stronger, better version of itself.
Date: June 6, 1889
A careless accident in a woodworking shop on Front Avenue (now First Avenue) nearly destroyed Seattle and rewrote this city’s history. Some glue caught fire while heating on June 6, 1889, in a woodworking shop and the dry weather quickly sent the fire out of control. By the time this 18-hour long fire was brought under control, it had devoured most of downtown Seattle. Though only one fatality was recorded, damages were pegged at USD 20 million. Vigorous reconstruction work was taken up soon after and the city was rebuilt within a year. The population grew and Seattle reached a new level of prosperity.
Date: February 7-8, 1904
The Great Baltimore Fire that blazed across this city in Maryland on February 7 and 8, 1904, destroyed some 1500 buildings and 2500 businesses. It spread across 140 acres area. The fire that first broke out in John Hurst and Company quickly turned the city into a raging inferno. Firefighters were called in from neighboring states but only after 30 hours of fury did the fire burn itself out. Property damages from the fire were pegged at about USD 200 million, though no casualties were reported, though 5 deaths were indirectly linked to the fire.
San Francisco, California
Date: April 18, 1906
The San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, was one of the worst natural disasters to have hit American soil. Measuring a magnitude of 7.8 Mw, the quake and its aftershocks wrecked havoc on the city. The impact was such that the shock waves could be felt from southern Oregon down to Los Angeles. Equally disastrous were the out of control fires that broke out in many parts of the city. Over 30 fires were reported from disrupted gas mains across the city within a period of three days from the earthquake. Together the quake and the fires left about 3000 people from San Francisco dead. Over 28000 buildings were damaged across the 296-mile long fault.
Date: May 21, 1917
Like most other great fires that have razed cities across the world, the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 too started innocuously. Firefighting crew tended to small fires across the city but one big blaze in a cotton warehouse downtown wrecked havoc on the city. Dry strong winds fanned the flames as fire jumped from rooftop to rooftop. 300 acres of the city came down in ashes and about 10,000 people were left homeless as over 1,900 buildings came down. The fire would have caused much more destruction, perhaps, but in one last ditch attempt to contain it, Atlanta fire chief William Cody decided to blast a chasm on its path with the help of dynamites. Damages from the fire were estimated at about USD 5.5 million.
Texas City, Texas
Date: April 16, 1947
On April 16, 1947, an unusual chain of events led to a massive fire in Texas City. The French freight ship, Grandcamp was docked in the Galveston Bay port. The ship was carrying a large consignment of ammonium nitrate and some other inflammable material. A small fire on the ship, not an unusual incident, brought many onlookers. The fire, however, caused the ammonium nitrate to blaze and a massive explosion shook the city. The blast destroyed the port and brought about 1,000 buildings to the ground. The explosion set ablaze the ammonium nitrate on the nearby ship High Flyer and the explosive that landed on the land set fire to Texas City. High Flyer also detonated on April 17 and many of the nearby refineries and plants caught fire, requiring most of Texas City to be evacuated. Over 600 were killed and 3,000 wounded in the explosion and subsequent fires. Damages were pegged at about USD 100 million.