“The Vehemence of the Flames”: The History of Three Fires at the Old State House

The Fire of 1832


It was around 4:00 AM, Wednesday, November 21, 1832 when the Boston’s Fire Department responded to an alarm. Opposite the Old State House, which in 1832 was being used as Boston's first City Hall, the brick building numbered 14 and 16 State Street was up in flames. The firemen quickly fell into action, attacking the building with water hoses. While extinguishing the flames, one of the floors of the building suddenly exploded. The resulting blast caused the building to shake and left two people severely burned. It was later found that a canister of gun powder owned by a local businessman, Mr. Center, caused the explosion.

The Old State House in flames, 1832 (1887.0073)
The fire department left the scene that day having successfully extinguished the fire; knowing nothing of the fire slowly billowing next door. The firemen hardly had time to rest before they had to rush to yet another fire on State Street - this time at City Hall! When the firemen returned to State Street, they saw that the fire was burning on the roof of City Hall, presumably started by sparks from the earlier fire across the street. The fire department acted swiftly, and successfully extinguished the flames before the fire reached the lower floors of the building.

The ravages of the flames were minimal in comparison to the 1747 building fire, as only the roof and attic story suffered fire damage. Water used to put out the flames damaged the building; however, the Post Office and the merchants occupying the lower floors had to suspend their businesses temporarily. The Globe (Washington, D.C.) and New-Hampshire Statesman and State Journal reported that the estimated damages to City Hall and its neighboring structure at $5,000 to $8,000 each, as neither building was insured. Boston’s City Council appropriated funds of $3,500 to repair the damages.

Stay tuned for my final smoke-filled post in this series about fires at the Old State House.

By Deirdre Kutt, Education Associate