Friday, January 15, 2010

Book Quotes: Boston Fire

From Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen (page 247-248):

Four months after the Emerson fire, she found herself an eyewitness to the calamitous blaze that swept Boston on the night of November 9, 1872. Her taste for lurid spectacle and personal danger was excited as soon as word of the downtown business district conflagration reached her boardinghouse on the other side of Boston Common. She raced out to watch the souring flames and their dramatic effects. "Trinity Church was beginning to smoke, & all the great granite blocks of stones were melting like ice in the awful heat," she reported, awed by the transformation. The behavior of "venerable Beacon Street gentlemen" attempting to rescue inventory from the inferno while plate glass windows melted interested her no less. So did the sound: the fire "created a whirlwind & an awful roar." She saw "blazing boards, great pieces of cloth & rolls of paper flying in all directions falling on roofs & spreading the fire," while "fire men could not go up their ladders the heat was so intense & many were killed by falling walls." The scene was chaotic. Most of the city's horses were unfit for service because of an outbreak of distemper; as a consequence, the firefighting equipment had to be pulled by male volunteers hitched into the animals' traces. When water proved useless against the flames, citizens were allowed to blow up buildings in (failed) attempts to create breaks in its path. "The red glare, the strange roar, the flying people, all made night terrible & I kept thinking of the Last Days of Pompeii," Louisa later wrote to Anna.

Once back in her room, she took in clerks exhausted from rescuing their bosses' account books. She was giving them tea and cake when a friend came to warn that the fire was moving in their direction. Louisa wrapped her manuscript of Work, her best dress, a pair of new boots, and some books in an old army blanket and boarded an open wagon to be hauled to safety across the river in Cambridge by men--not horses--in harness.

When the excitement was over and Boston, already struggling to contain a smallpox outbreak as well as the horse distemper epidemic, began its massive cleanup, Louisa pushed on with Work, now subtitled A Story of Experience.

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