Boston Reconsidered Blog Berry

Resilience at Old South Meeting House


Every day that we adapt our lives to stay inside and protect each other or go back on the front lines as an essential worker in this epidemic, we show our capacity for resilience. While this current moment feels unprecedented, Bostonians have been through crises before, building resilience along the way, together. 

Like all of us, Old South Meeting House has been through its fair share of challenges. Ordinary Bostonians have worked for years to keep the Meeting House cared for on a daily basis, but they’ve also ensured that it lives through tragic events like the Great Fire of 1872. 

Even though the fire didn’t begin at Old South, the building stood just down the street from where the blaze began: right at the corner of Summer Street and Kingston Street, just beyond Downtown Crossing.  With that spark, years of urban development in the heart of the city began to go up in smoke.

Ordinary Bostonians who heard the first fire alarm at 7:24 PM on November 9, 1872, had no idea what was happening, and would be met with uncontrollable tragedy. Though the buildings downtown were brand-new, the water mains were old, and the horses that pulled the fire equipment were sick. The wooden fixtures of each building caught fire all the way down the street before spreading throughout Boston.

Bucket, Fire from the Revolutionary Spaces collection
Catalog #: 1922.0004.003
Gift of William B. Revere
Artist/Maker: Unknown
Date Made: ca. 1872
Material: leather, paint

Boston begged for help. They sent telegraphs to nearby towns; soon, assistance poured in from nearby states, and officials began blowing up buildings with gunpowder just to prevent the fire from spreading. Their actions were the only thing that saved what was left of the hub of the universe after over 12 grueling hours of struggle. An engine from New Hampshire came down just in time to save Old South Meeting House, along with a fire brigade made up entirely of volunteers: ordinary Bostonians. They fought together to save and keep the city that united them.

It was because the firefighters were so determined to save the Meeting House that the fire was stopped just a short distance from the entrance to Old South. In the end, two firemen were killed, and up to 20 Bostonians died. As for the city itself, hundreds of buildings over dozens of acres were burnt, and millions of dollars were lost. When the smoke cleared, it was ordinary Bostonians who stepped over the rubble and took on the work of rebuilding the city. 

Old South Meeting House saw part of Boston burn to ashes in 1872, and now stands guard over streets emptied by the pandemic.  We remember that the ordinary Bostonians today on the front lines of the fight against coronavirus are following in the footsteps of the ordinary Bostonians in 1872 who poured into downtown that night to save their neighbors and Old South.  We believe that like generations before us, we ordinary Bostonians will live to see the city rise again like a phoenix from the ashes.



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