Boston Fire Commissioner and Cadets Visit the Boston Athenaeum Great Fire Exhibit

Special to the Times

On Wednesday June 14, the Boston Fire Commissioner and Chief of Boston Fire Department Paul F. Burke, along with other Boston Fire Officials and the members of the Inaugural Boston Fire Cadet class, visited the Boston Athenaeum to commemorate the Boston Fire of 1872, by viewing and learning about the Fire through the special exhibit, Revisiting the Ruins: The Great Boston Fire of 1872.

BFD cadets tour the Boston Athenaeum’s exhibits of prints, photographs, and written accounts that documented the aftermath and romanticization of the blaze that ravaged Boston’s central commercial district.
Boston Fire Department Commissioner Paul Burke (left) is presented a
reprint of “The Boston Fire” oil painting by artist F. Shaw as a gift from
Boston Atheneum director, Leah Rosovsky (center); and associate curator,
Christina Michelon, Ph.D. (right).

The firefighters were treated to the VIP status that they deserved for their service to the City with a special welcome by Leah Rosovsky, Director of the Boston Athenaeum and a private tour of the exhibit with a talk on the history of the Fire and the curation of the special exhibit by Christina Michelon, Associate Curator at the Athenaeum and Exhibit Coordinator for the fire exhibit. Michelon was well positioned to curate the exhibit as the daughter of a retired firefighter from Chicago, whose own Great Fire just two years prior to Boston’s served as a warning that the same tragedy could happen here.

The event stage was set for the Cadets by an address by Commissioner Burke who highlighted that the Great Fire, while devastating, managed to be curtailed by yeoman’s efforts of the Boston firefighters, assisted by fire teams from most of New England. In fact, the team from Portsmouth, NH was credited with containing the fire just short of Old South Meeting House. Burke pointed out that more manpower was required at the Fire as there was coincidentally an equine epidemic at the same time. Horsepower was so limited, manpower was required to pull the fire trucks. Burke’s focus was the importance of the strict fire codes in place in Boston today, because of lessons learned from the Great Boston Fire, as well as the Great Molasses Disaster of 1919 and the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire of 1942. Director Rosovsky presented Burke with a framed reproduction of one of the exhibit art works, which Burke commented he would proudly hang in his office.

The Exhibit tour focused on three key areas: how the national, even global, news of the Fire was publicized in 1872, the romanticization of the fire ruins, as well as the artifacts retrieved from the fire. Photographs taken during the fire were important, not because they were published directly, but because they were copied into pen and ink drawings. At the time, newspaper technology could not reproduce photos, so drawings were required. As history has proven, tragic ruins do get romanticized in art, as with art displaying Pompei, so was the Great Fire. The Exhibit also has a few artifacts from the Fire, primarily retail and industrial items. At the time the Fire raged, in what is now primarily the Financial District and Downtown Crossing, it was home to industrial, warehouse, and retail structures, with few residences. While the Fire did not reach the Athenaeum itself, the library did lose a storage facility, but it was insured.

Revisiting the Ruins: the Great Boston Fire of 1872 is on exhibit through July 29, 2023, open to the public, with tickets available online at The exhibit displays very local and worth viewing scenes of an important chapter in our city’s history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.