DATELINE: Great Boston Fire
Boston nearly burned to the ground one year after the Great Chicago Fire. Damrell’s Fire is an extraordinary documentary, partly for the realistic animation and non-sensational approach to the subject matter. It succinctly presents the issues, the problems, the solutions, in a fast-moving 50 minutes.
No movie was made about the Boston conflagration because Chief John S. Damrell, despite opposition from political Brahmins, saved the city from calamity in 1872.
Damrell was a man from the people. His father and grandfather were firefighters—and he was not rich, nor a member of the aristocracy of the Athens of America.
He was merely a man who studied fire science and applied pragmatic strategies to a firestorm. He argued against using gunpowder to blow up buildings, noting that it made for more kindling and swifter moving flames.
For years he warned the city of Boston that its water pipes were too narrow, and there was not enough energy to reach upper stories. He railed against building codes and mansard roofs. Yet, the City snobs thought they already had the best fire department in the nation.
It took idiocy of politicians, yet again, to wake the country up to the reasons the urban areas were becoming tinderboxes.
Boston put him under the microscope after the fire, only reluctantly acknowledging his hands-on insights were years ahead of assorted commissioners who were political hacks.
Damrell did not win accolades easily. His resignation was eventually forced by powerful enemies, though he best recommendations were adopted.
Boston’s Great Fire deserves one of the best documentaries and receives it.