Downtown Boston Fire Causes Heavy Loss
A five-alarm fire, which raged out of control for an hour and threatened part of the downtown Boston area, destroyed a paper company and spread to three adjoining building before it was controlled by one of the greatest concentrations of fire forces in the history of the Hub.
The fire, which started from an undisclosed cause about 3:00 A.M., on the morning of March 9, 1950, left only walls of the 4-story brick building at 189-95 Congress Street, occupied by the Cook-Vivian Wholesale Paper Co., Thomas & Co. (also a paper company) and Miller Wool Waste Co. The Sager Electric Co. building adjoining was saved by a fire wall, but was damaged. The New England Telephone & Telegraph Co. skyscraper and the Chamber of Commerce Building, both exposed to the hot fire, were saved by fire fighters.
The fire was discovered when it set off an ADT alarm. The building was heavily involved before firemen reached the scene. Four additional alarms were shot in within ten minutes, bringing into action a total of 63 pieces of apparatus and a large force of men under Fire Chief John F. McDonough. Fire Commissioner Michael Kelleher and other city officials also were present.
A series of shattering explosions punctuated the fire, blowing out windows and sending embers toward the telephone building. Maintenance men of this company strung hose from the 5th and 15th floors to wet down the exposed side of the structure.
Terrific heat and heavy smoke at first made it difficult for firemen to come to grips with the fire, but after heavy streams had driven back the flames sufficiently to ladder the building, men carried lines to the roof. Two firemen were knocked unconscious and trapped on the roof when an explosion shot fire high in the air, but they quickly recovered and were able to escape down on aerial ladder.
Shortly after 4:00 A.M., the floors gave way and firemen were ordered away from the old building, which was built in 1868 and survived the original Boston fire. Heavy streams on Congress Street, Leather Square and Matthews Place, joining with others operated from all available vantage points were able to flood out the fire. Both the city’s high pressure and low pressure systems were heavily used.
As Boston apparatus was brought in to fight the fire and protect high values areas, suburban companies moved in to cover for the hard pressed Boston fire fighters.
The great heat of the fire prevented firemen from operating at first in the narrow alleyway at the rear. Hose lines were carried through a radio store and office building on Federal street in the move to prevent spread of the blaze. Despite all efforts to control it, the fire jumped Leather Square at one point and ignited window casings in the rear of the Federal Street building. Firemen quickly controlled this extension.
Veterans said the fire was the biggest downtown blaze in twenty-five years and the first five-alarmer since the Armour Leather Co. fire two years ago. Chief McDonough reported damage of approximately $700,000.
The fire was fought by 26 engine companies of two units each; six ladder trucks, a rescue company; two portable lighting units and two water towers. To cover all districts of the Hub, suburban Brookline firemen filled in at Huntington Ave. and Egleston Sq.; Newton at Oak Sq., Brighton; Cambridge at River and Cernon Sts., Somerville and Everett at Charlestown; Chelsea at East Boston; Cambridge at Boylston St.; and Quincey at Neponset. All these locations and relocations were made largely under the Boston area mutual aid plan. The fire also brought out heavy concentrations of police and emergency and disaster services, as well as the thousands of spectators.