Jonathan Yardley

Crosby's Opera House burns in the Chicago Fire of 1871
Crosby's Opera House burns in the Chicago Fire of 1871 (Harper's Weekly)

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 18, 2006

SEVEN FIRES

The Urban Infernos That Reshaped America

By Peter Charles Hoffer

PublicAffairs. 460 pp. $27.50

It is perhaps a slight overstatement to say, as Peter Charles Hoffer does in his subtitle, that the seven city fires under discussion herein "reshaped America," but their ramifications were certainly felt far beyond the boundaries of the cities where they occurred. Boston 1760, Pittsburgh 1845, Chicago 1871, Baltimore 1904, Detroit 1967, Oakland Hills 1991 and New York City 2001 -- all obviously were major conflagrations that caused catastrophic destruction, but all also were more than just fires, because they led to important changes in American life and exposed the vulnerability of large cities to particular forms of devastation.

The seven fires: Boston in 1760 was essentially a wooden city, rebuilt as such after a terrible fire a half-century earlier "because the cost of rebuilding in wood was lower than the cost of fireproofing" and because it was in the interest of real-estate developers to rebuild quickly. The conflagration that swept through the city in March, greatly aided by a powerful wind, "the ally of urban fire [that] bears the fire on its back and throws its embers into the sky so that the fire can be reborn over and over," killed no one but destroyed a 20-acre tract in the Old South End of the city and left hundreds of its poorest residents homeless.

Pittsburgh in 1845 had a "morbid fascination with fire," an "arrogant conceit that it could turn fire into an obedient servant." It was the "iron city," and "the iron maker's fire had to burn around the clock." Ramshackle houses were side by side with forges and factories, and the air was constantly thick with smoke and soot. The fire that started at a rooming house in April spread rapidly and erratically, controlled by a quirky wind that moved this way and that. It destroyed well over a thousand buildings and did $12 million in damage -- a vast amount at the time -- but, again, killed no one.

Chicago in 1871, like Pittsburgh a quarter-century earlier, was a city on the make, densely packed with poor laborers living in wooden houses that weren't much better than shacks, "a horizontal forest, a waiting feast for a great fire." The terrible fire in October probably wasn't set when Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern, as legend has long insisted, but it did start in her barn, and it was a calamity, killing more than 200 people, leaving 90,000 homeless, burning unimaginable amounts of wheat, corn, beef, timber and coal. It left the city in ruins and remains to this day the most famous of all American urban fires.

Baltimore in 1904 "exhibited some of the most extreme differences between the rich and the poor of any of the great cities," Hoffer writes. The wealthy lived luxuriously around Mount Vernon Place, but the poor were everywhere else, in environments not significantly different from those in the three previous cities. The fire that started in February at the Hurst dry goods store in the crowded downtown center was more powerful than anything that anyone had seen, so terrible that the fire chief was forced to confess, "We're in God's hands; the wind is too much for us and there is not enough water in Baltimore to keep those flames from spreading." Only a truly heroic stand at the Jones Falls by firemen from several cities prevented the destruction of the entire city; as it was, the heart of the city looked as if it had been bombed into extinction.

Detroit in 1967 was dreadfully divided, "a 'rust-belt' city in a downward spiral, a wealthy metropolis stunned by violence, 'white flight,' and maladministration." July was exceptionally hot, and the heat heightened the frustration and anger of many black residents. A confrontation between police and revelers at a party rubbed all the sore spots, and soon the city was burning. The arsonists "were young, angry, came from lower-class one-parent families, and thought that they had little to look forward to." It was, Hoffer argues, "a fire-born rebellion of the young against their parents," and it left 43 people dead, 1,189 injured and "a poisonous cloud of mistrust in the air" that the city is still trying to lift.

The Oakland Hills in 1991 were a beautiful enclave for the wealthy, overlooking the rest of Oakland in a neighborhood thick with wooden houses and dry chaparral. The October fire "had probably begun with a rubbish pile construction workers left behind," and it spread with astonishing speed. It was a classic wildfire, one of those "natural forces so overwhelming in their scope, so determined to have their way that no human action seems effective and no amount of resistance makes a difference." It killed 25 people, seriously injured 150 and destroyed 2,843 residences: "One visitor to the area a week later . . . described the ruins as reminiscent of pictures of Hiroshima."

New York in 2001 was bustling and prosperous, defined for millions around the world by the massive towers of the World Trade Center. When the planes hijacked by terrorists slammed into the towers on Sept. 11, they set off a "high-rise inferno" that Hoffer calls "another kind of wildfire," one that races "swiftly up and down rather than horizontally." Such fires, he says, "imperil more people and damage more property than conventional urban building blazes." Fresh as those fires are in the nation's memory, no recapitulation of their toll is necessary here.

Each fire, Hoffer argues, had its unforeseen consequences. Boston in 1760 learned that "when it counted, when the people needed the helping hand of the elites and the British government, those in power had no interest in helping the sufferers." The fire played a role in "the rise of popular opposition to Parliament." Pittsburgh in 1845 was chiefly an instance of no lessons being learned: The city simply built more wooden structures, persuaded itself that no change in its way of doing business was necessary and sailed blithely into the future. By contrast, Chicago in 1871 was afflicted by "labor unrest and class conflict" after the fire, but it also began to rebuild into a city of skyscrapers and the massive buildings of the great architect Louis Sullivan.

The city that responded most positively to the devastation of fire may well have been Baltimore in 1904. It set about rebuilding not merely with zeal but with positive cooperation between public and private interests; the fire became "an opportunity to accomplish all the repairs of the city's infrastructure that politics and petty interests had delayed or derailed for the past decade," a process that continued right up to the construction of Harborplace and Camden Yards. Detroit, of course, is a long way from recovering from the wounds of 1967, and New York is still bickering over how to replace the Twin Towers and memorialize the victims of the attack.

"The lesson of the seven fires," Hoffer writes, "is that city fire is inevitable; it can be contained, fought, and controlled, but not eliminated." The dangers of fire can be reduced, but we are slow to do so: "We want fire safety, but not at the price of profit." We come up with preventive measures after fires have done their damage, not before. We expect the courage of firefighters to bail us out when we haven't been paying attention, and then we go right back into denial. It's human nature.

Hoffer, who teaches history at the University of Georgia, writes vividly and knowledgeably about fires: what causes them, how they grow from small flames into firestorms, how we fight them. His chapter on the Oakland Hills wildfire is especially good. He also understands that for all the inadequacy of our preparations for the fires that we think never will happen, we sometimes have made our cities into better places in the wake of them. ยท

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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