Ever since mankind first began building structures out of wood rather than stone, fire has been a part of the learning process. In fact, so common have these infernos been throughout history that nearly every major city in the world has been largely burnt to the ground at one time or another in its history. Some, in fact, have burned repeatedly. For example, Constantinople was burned no fewer than five times between 406 and 1204 only to be, like a damaged anthill, rebuilt each time, thereby setting the stage for the next great inferno. Many times these fires are man-made results of war, but most of the time nature—combined with poor construction techniques, the extensive use of flammable building materials, and the utter lack of any ability to fight really large blazes—were the culprit.
A few of these fires stand out in our memory, however, both for their size and some for having had a major role in shaping historical events. Which fires are these? Without further ado, here is my list of the top ten most destructive, most famous, or most historically significant non-war related infernos in history.
10. Boston 1872
While not as large a fire as the one in Chicago the year before or the fire that was to ravage San Francisco just over three decades later, Boston’s fire was arguably the most expensive in terms of property damage of any American fire. This was largely due to the fact that most of the damage was confined to the cities’ downtown areas and financial districts, resulting in thousands of Bostonians losing their jobs and hundreds of businesses being destroyed. In fact, it was so expensive a fire that dozens of insurance companies even went bankrupt trying to pay out damages. (Think about that the next time you pay your premium.)
Unfortunately, the fire might never have done so much damage had not the cities’ overworked fire department not been burdened with everything from locked fire alarm boxes (which had been ordered by the city to be locked to prevent false reports) to low water pressure and non-standardized fire hydrant couplings. In the end, this comedy of errors resulted in 65 acres of downtown Boston—including some 776 building and twenty people—being turned into charred cinders, making it one of the East Coast’s most devastating fires.
9. London 1212
Much less well known than the later fire in 1666, the fire that devastated London in 1212 (known also as The Great Fire of Southwark) was far more deadly, leaving as many as 3,000 people dead, many of whom died when they were trapped on the engulfed London Bridge. (Yes, there really was a London Bridge, but this one was made of highly flammable wood waterproofed with even more flammable tar.) While exact figures on the number of buildings destroyed may never be known, the fire gutted much of the area south of the Thames known as Southwark, leaving about a third of the old city in ruins.
Of course, this wasn’t the first fire to ravage London during its history, as parts of the city burned in 1130 and again in 1135 (the latter fire destroying most of the city between St Paul’s and St Clement Danes in Westminster). In fact, the great city was to burn at least a half dozen times between 1130 and 1666, making it one of the great tinderboxes on the planet (and evidence that directly challenges the notion that one learns from the past). Must’ve been hard to buy a fire insurance policy back then.
8. London 1666
While England’s modern capital has burned repeatedly, largely due to its wooden construction and poor design, it was the great inferno of 1666 that is best remembered, mainly because of the impact it had on the citizens not only of London, but of all England. Not only did it turn out to be remarkably non-lethal (by all accounts, only six people died in the flames) but the interesting thing about this fire (which was apparently started when a maid forgot to douse the fires in a baker’s shop), was that it actually proved unintentional beneficial. How? The area of the city that was most thoroughly destroyed proved to be the filthy slums associated the Great Plague that had swept through the city the previous summer, effectively cleansing and, in a way, even sterilizing the city, thereby making it a fresh canvas upon which to rebuild. In this sense then, the fire did London a favor, though it probably didn’t appear that way to the displaced citizens of the city at the time.
7. Rome 64 A.D.
Long the stuff of legend, while it is true flames gutted the heart of the capital of the Roman Empire, there is no evidence that the Emperor Nero fiddled while it burned. (Partially this is due to the fact that the fiddle—a variation of the violin—had not been invented yet.) There was also a rumor that persists to this day that Nero had the city put to the torch as part of a plan to clear out choice pieces of real estate upon which he would later build his new palace, but this too, like so much about the hated emperor, is most likely just a bit of propaganda offered by his political opponents after his death. What is known it that, at least according to the Roman historian Tacitus, it spread quickly and burned for five and a half days, leaving ten of the fourteen districts of Rome either completely destroyed or seriously damaged. It also appears that while Nero may not have been responsible for the fire, he did use it as justification to persecute the local Christian population, who many accused of being responsible for setting the blaze. (And I’m sure it was just a coincidence that he did build one of his grandest palaces upon the ruins—a show of opulence that was to lead to his downfall a few short years later.)
6. Chicago 1871
Probably few infernos have been as famous as the one that ravaged much of Chicago in October, 1871, leaving more that 17,000 structures burned and 90,000 people homeless. Fortunately, it spread slowly enough that fewer than 300 died in the flames, but that’s of little consolation to those who were forced to face a cold Midwestern winter without shelter as a result. While there is no doubt the fire started in a barn on the O’Leary property at 137 DeKoven Street, there is no evidence it was caused by the poor woman’s cow kicking over a lantern. (That story was made up newspaper reporter who later admitted he did so because he thought it made for more “colorful” copy. Modern researchers instead have come up with a hypothesis that it may have actually been started by a transient smoking in the barn and inadvertently setting the hay inside alight.) In any case, like the London fire of 1666, the fire paved the way for a new and improved Chicago to rise from the ashes that would within a few short decades make it the great metropolis it is today. It also led to much needed firefighting reforms that would one day make Chicago’s fire department one of the best in the country and be a template by which other large city fire departments would base their own procedures. Not bad work for one bad bovine.
5. San Francisco 1906
The fire that burned 25,000 buildings over 490 city blocks and left some 3,000 dead was both man-made and natural; natural in that the fire was a by-product of a massive earthquake that hit the city in the predawn hours of April 18, 1906, and man-made as many of the destroyed structures were the result of clumsy efforts by untrained and poorly led firefighters to dynamite largely intact buildings in an attempt to create firebreaks. (Some estimate this may have accounted for as many as 50% of the buildings that were destroyed that would have otherwise survived.) Of course, the fact that the earthquake—one of the largest in American history—destroyed the water mains didn’t help, but the even bigger problem was that the city was in serious straights prior to the quake and fire as a result of a corrupt and unresponsive city government that diverted money intended for emergencies to “other” projects, leaving firefighters without proper equipment. Finally, and as if that all wasn’t enough, the one man most capable of successfully coordinating fire-fighting efforts, fire chief Dennis Sullivan, died in the initial quake, leaving the firefighters without a central leadership. Definitely not a good day for the city by the bay. However, it is remarkable how quickly San Francisco recovered afterwards, with hardly a trace of the fire evident a mere decade later.
4. Peshtigo, Wisconsin 1871
While many people have heard of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, few people are aware that a second fire was taking place at the same time just a few hundred miles away in upstate Wisconsin, and that this fire would be responsible for more deaths by fire than any other in U.S. history. How many would die in a fire that was to scorch an area more than twice the size of the state of Rhode Island and lay waste to twelve communities will probably never be known exactly, largely due to the remoteness of the area and the largely rural population, but some estimates put the number as high as 2,500. Hardest hit was the little town of Peshtigo, most of whose population of 1,700 died in the flames—with many of their bodies never recovered. (Many of the survivors escaped the flames by immersing themselves in the Peshtigo River, wells, or other nearby bodies of water, though even then many drowned or succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid waters.) How bad was it? Surviving witnesses reported that the firestorm generated a tornado that threw rail cars hundreds of feet and flung entire houses into the air. Makes Mrs. O’Leary’s cow look tame by comparison.
3. Texas City, Texas 1947
Who would think that a small fire in the hold of a docked freighter would cause such a problem? No one, unless, of course, the freighter was carrying 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer (this is the same stuff that was used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1994)—the result being the largest industrial explosion in U.S. history. So massive was the blast that resulted from the fertilizer explosion that it leveled over 1,000 buildings and left nearly 600 people dead or missing (including the entire Texas City volunteer fire department, which was on the freighter when it exploded.) It also started a chain reaction among the various refineries and chemical plants along the dockyard that added to the carnage and left the entire dockyard and much of the surrounding city gutted. How big was the explosion? Let me put it this way: people felt the shock wave some 250 miles away in New Orleans while windows forty miles away in Houston were shattered. It even knocked a sightseeing airplane out of the sky and hurled one of the ship’s anchors—about the only part of the freighter still identifiable afterwards—about a mile through the air. Definitely a bad day to be a dockworker—or a volunteer firefighter.
2. Halifax, Nova Scotia 1917
Most people have never heard of this event largely because it occurred during wartime and so was largely kept out of the press by wartime censors, but Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia was the scene of the world’s largest man-made accidental explosion in history. It all began on the morning of December 6, 1917 when the cargo ship Mont-Blanc, loaded to the gills with ammunition bound for the war in Europe, collided with a Norwegian freighter in the narrow confines of Halifax harbor and caught fire. Before the flames could be brought under control, they touched off the highly volatile ammunition, resulting in an explosion that was so powerful (estimates are that it blew with a force of three kilotons of TNT) it even caused a tsunami in the harbor and a pressure wave of air that snapped trees, bent iron rails, demolished buildings, grounded vessels, and carried fragments of the Mont-Blanc for miles in every direction. To make matters worse, the next day a blizzard hit the city that hampered efforts to rescue people from their collapsed homes, further adding to the death toll which eventually climbed to over 2,000 people. It also left another 9,000 people injured and much of the city in ruins, leaving Halifax Harbor unusable as a major port for years afterwards.
1. Tokyo, Japan 1923
Much like San Francisco seventeen years earlier, the city of Tokyo was both leveled by a massive earthquake and ravaged by a fire that swept through the rubble afterwards, resulting in a staggering death toll that some estimates place as high as 142,000 (with the single greatest loss of life occurring when approximately 38,000 people packed into an open space in downtown Tokyo were incinerated by a firestorm-induced fire whirl). What made this disaster so unique was how it combined a number of factors together to produce an especially devastating effect: for example, the earthquake struck at lunchtime when many people were cooking, resulting in numerous fires breaking out throughout the city which then spread rapidly as a result of the high winds from a nearby typhoon off the coast, some of which developed into firestorms which swept across the city. Further, the quake created a tsunami which added to the death toll and the destruction, resulting in the destruction of 570,000 homes and leaving a staggering 1.9 million homeless, giving the day much of a doomsday sort of feel. Not to worry, however; the city was entirely rebuilt just in time to be incinerated again in World War II by American B-29 bombers.
Honorable Mentions: New York City (burned twice, once in 1776 and again in 1835); Amsterdam (burned to the ground twice in 1421 and again in 1452.); Moscow (set alight no fewer than four times between 1547 and 1812.); Copenhagen (burned to the ground in 1728 and again sixty-seven years later); and New Orleans (burned in 1788 and 1794. And you thought hurricanes were its only problem.) _____________________________________________________________________________________
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.