Views of Chief Damrell and His Assistants and of General Sheridan and Others On Its Use in Boston and Chicago Conflagrations

The Salem conflagration where dynamite was used to check the spread of the fire, has renewed the old question of the advisability of using explosives for that purpose. It is claimed that its use was a failure at Salem as it has been in large fires of other cities according to the reports. It has been shown that this method has in a few instances been successful in small cities and towns where the buildings were small and some distance apart, but in cities where the buildings are large and connected its use was a failure. It was the most extensively used in the Chicago conflagration of October 8-9, 1871, and Boston, November 9-10, 1872. The newspapers and public had a great deal to say of its use and results at that time. It was used with much success in the great London conflagration of 1666 when 13,200 buildings were destroyed, many of which were not connected with other buildings. This question has been considered in chiefs’ and other firemen’s conventions and they have all declared its use to have been a failure

General Sheridan’s Views

At the time of the Chicago conflagration General P. H. Sheridan who was then in command of the military division which had its headquarters in Chicago and who during the fire attempted to blow up a building on Wabash avenue, which was a failure, said of the use of gunpowder to demolish buildings during that fire: “Four-fifths of the efforts to blow up buildings were failures, the other fifth, on Harrison street and Wabash avenue, were successful because the fire in these streets was burning against wind, and it had nothing left to feed upon. I think one steam fire engine in these streets would have done all that was idone by powder and would have done it better.” Mr. Hildreth, a former alderman of Chicago, after obtaining a reluctant consent from Chief B. A. Williams, who declined to assume the responsibility, with members of the Underwriters Salvage Corps, obtained fifty kegs of powder and with eight men demolished thirty or more buildings to the leeward of the fire which Mr. Hildreth claimed was successful. All the buildings were levelled.

Report of Chief Damrell on Its Use

In his report on the Boston conflagration, Chief John S. Damrell said of the use of powder: “The use of gunpowder as an auxiliary in the extinguishment of fires, has been a question of great interest. Information upon this matter has been sought for in every city of this country where it has been used. In every instance the answer has been the same. ‘With us it proved disastrous.’ General Sheridan informed me after the Chicago conflagration that he was entirely opposed to the use of gunpowder as a means to prevent the spreading of fire, and that his opinion was confirmed by his observation of its use during the Chicago fire; that he was satisfied that one steam fire engine was of more advantage than all the gunpowder there used. The parties who used it in Chicago claimed to have accomplished a great work with it. Their claims failed of endorsement by those most competent to judge. The only monument of their exploits left was a block of five three-story dwellings which had been blown up to the windward of the fire, and which from absence of gas, did not ignite on account of the explosion. With these facts the Boston Board of Engineers (now chief and district chiefs), carefully investigated the buildings liable to a serious fire and were unanimous in the opinion that gunpowder could not be used advantageously. In order to accomplish the end desired there must be a cavity to drop them into which could only be had by removing the goods from each story above the basement. An attempt to blow up a building without first performing this work would simply blow the front and rear wall into the street, and drop the floors upon the merchandise, thereby preparing it for a ready bonfire. Again the gas should be shut off from that section of the city where powder was to be used. Failing to shut off the gas in the building exploded the pipes would be broken by the explosion and a full flow of gas would permeate every part of the debris and the least spark or flicker of flame would ignite the entire mass. An explosion to throw the wall of any warehouse, would break every pane of glass within 100 feet, and make an open conduit for this increased body of flame to ignite and set on fire all buildings within the distance named. In addition to this the streets are blocked and made impassable, the firemen, for the time being, are forced back as a precautionary measure, and the time consumed in the preparation, and waiting for the explosion, is of too much value to be estimated. These were the opinions of myself and assistants when the fire of November 9 occurred, none of us had any personal experience with the use of gunpowder when exceptions were taken to our judgment by some of our most influential and respectable citizens and 1 determined to make a trial of gunpowder to avert, if possible, the onward march of the flames. At lip. m. (fire commenced at 7.20 p. m.) I ordered Assistant Engineers W. A. Green (subsequently chief of department) and Z. E. Smith to make a trial. Before doing so I notified my assistants of my intention and none of them approved of it but we all felt that we should give it a trial to satisfy public demand, and to convince them as to how powder would operate in such an emergency. My assistants assembled for consultation and voted: ‘That the chief be authorized to use gunpowder, if, in his judgment, it will in any way tend to save the city from destruction.’ The statute law compelled such an authorization act of the chief’s assistants. The mayor when asked if he would sustain the chief in the use of gunpowder, consented. There were several explosions of buildings but they were less in number than was demanded by those urging the use of gunpowder, and had much less effect in staying the spread of the fire than has been claimed for it. The use of gunpowder was contrary to my judgment. The experience fully confirmed this opinion.”


Expert Testimony at Boston

Before the commissions who investigated the Boston fire. Chief Damrell gave the following additional information: “I personally directed the use of powder to blow up a low three-story building used as an oil store; ten twenty-five pound kegs of powder were placed under the stairs in center of building. There was fire in the second story, fuse was put in four kegs, a minute fuse was ignited; the street was cleared and streams waiting, the explosion lifted the roof and dropped it on the top floor and threw out the floor where the powder was, and broke all glass close by. The explosion was of no benefit, the fire swept through the building quicker than it would if there had been no explosion. In another building the powder was put in a closet and the explosion simply dropped the building down, and the debris was burned. The taking of streams from adjoining buildings to prevent injury to firemen at time of explosion did more harm than the explosion did good. In one large office building admirably adopted for an explosion it was successful in demolishing the building. The escaping gas added to the flames in all the buildings where explosions took place. After a fair trial I ordered the use of gunpowder stopped. Assistant Chief W. A. Green testified that he used gunpowder. In one instance it blew out windows and doors, but did not bring the building down. In another building it had the same effect. In one instance it blew the building down and the walls fell in. Its use was a failure. Zenas E. Smith, an assistant engineer, and one of the largest contractors and builders in the city and a fireman for many years, who had charge of blowing up buildings, testified that he approved of its use to prevent possible censure from the public for not using it. In one instance a building was partially wrecked, and in a few minutes the entire building was in flames. None of the explosions by gunpowder in buildings were of any benefit in stopping the fire. Assistant Chief J. S. Jacobs, subsequently superintendent of the Protective Department, testified that the use of powder was not a success and made more fire than it prevented: and made the fire more difficult to manage. Many other firemen testified along the same line and in adtion said that in several instances powder had been used by unauthorized people and that firemen in the building and in adjoining buildings were not notified until after the fuse had been lighted. Several firemen had narrow escapes. Those who testified that the powder accomplished any good were those outside of the fire service who thought if a building was demolished by it that it was a success regardless of its after effects, such as firemen considered in determining its value.”

Report on Its Use at Boston

The commissioners who investigated the fire in their report, in part said of the use of gunpowder: “There is a conflict of testimony as to the balance of good or evil arising from the use of gunpowder. It is less necessary to strike the balance accurately, because all witnesses agree, and all sane people will agree, that explosives never should be used again as they were at that time, and that, if used at all, we should be prepared to employ them skillfully, carefully, and by a fixed plan. The chief and his assistants did not believe in explosives. They had studied the matter and generally agreed in condemning this method of attemptin’* to check fires. Its use demolishes gas pipes, and thus creates a fierce fire. When the gas is not shut off it tends to scatter the flames; it drives bark and discourages the firemen, and above all, it causes a long delay in attempting to quench a fire, when delay is ruinous. Added to this is the danger of premature and accidental explosions, especially when powder is carried in open kegs, as it was in several instances.”

Sappers and Miners Corps

There was some dynamite used without success in the Jacksonville, Fla., conflagration, of May 3, 1901, which destroyed 2,600 buildings covering 650 acres, or 80 blocks, in the principal part of the city with a loss of $15,000,000. After the Chicago and Boston fires New S’ork and a few other cities organized in their fire departments a Sappers and Miners Corps to handle explosives in the extinguishment of fires and New York still has such a corps, but it has not been used in service in recent years if it ever was. This question has several times come up in the conventions of the International Association of Fire Engineers but has never been given an important consideration, probably because few if any favored the use of explosives to check fires.

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