Fire and Ice: Some Calamities of the Old Colony

Old Colony History Museum
14 min readJan 2, 2023

Eric B. Schultz

Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice.

Some, like the residents of Taunton in 1886, may have thought their world would be swept away in a great flood. (See our blog post about “The Great Flood of 1886.”). Readers old enough to recall the Hurricane of 1938 saw their world blown off its foundations and washed out to sea. Those who lived in the Old Colony forty years later can still remember their world buried in snow during the Blizzard of ‘78.

Worlds can also turn on local tragedies, such as the 1874 Granite Mill Fire in Fall River or the devastating Strand Theatre Fire in Brockton in 1941.

When it comes to natural and manufactured catastrophes, the Old Colony knows fire and ice, floods, blizzards, and hurricanes. Once upon a time, it even survived a year without a summer.

In this first of two parts, we recall just a few of the calamities that rocked, shocked, shaped, and — despite it all — often helped to improve our modern world.

Some Say Fire

Most fires are small and, with luck, quickly contained and forgotten. However, when a fire earns a name — such as the Great Fire of London in 1666 or the Great Boston Fire of 1872 — its memory can span generations.

On September 19, 1874, residents of the Old Colony learned the news of Fall River’s spectacular Granite Mill Fire, a blaze that destroyed an enormous cotton mill on Bedford Street. “The hands went to work as usual,” the Taunton Daily Gazette reported, “but shortly afterward, the fire burst forth with lightning quickness, cutting off the fire alarm.”[1] Faced with suffocation from a blaze that erupted on the fourth floor, workers on the fifth and sixth floors tried to climb down or jump to safety.

Taunton Daily Gazette, September 19, 1874

Hundreds of horrified bystanders could only stand and watch. There would be questions later about the speed with which firemen responded and whether their equipment was adequate for the job. But there was no debate about their heroic efforts.

“While the flames were raging, and the poor victims in the upper rooms piteously calling those below to rescue them, Mr. John M. Bosworth, a fireman, reached the roof and by means of a rope lowered a number of women and children in safety to the ground,” the Boston Post reported. “The gallant and noble man continued his heroic work until the flames almost encircled him and the tottering roof almost gave way beneath him. Then, and only then, did he desist from his saving work, and with great difficulty reached his ladder and descended to the ground, which he barely touched when the roof fell in with a loud crash.”[2]

Another hero of the day, Superintendent James E. McCreery, dashed into the mill, turned off the gas, searched for those trapped, and — wrapping himself in a wet sheet — barely escaped the inferno.[3]

“The Ruins of the Granite Mill,” Harper’s Weekly, October 10, 1874

The Granite Mill Fire claimed 23 lives and injured 36 other workers. Many of the victims were children. The Boston Pilot concluded that “Massachusetts is being tried by fire and by flood” — a reference to the horrific Mill River Dam collapse in western Massachusetts that same year — “and heaven grant that it be for purification.”[4]

The Pilot’s call for redemption did not go unanswered. Recommendations from a coroner’s jury would lead to improved mill designs that included adequate fire escapes and alarms. As a result of the fire, mill architects began replacing traditional peaked roofs with flat roofs, making it easier to fight fires.[5]

However, the inquest was clear in placing the blame on workers. Those on the top floors were not notified promptly by those on the fourth floor. Had they been, the jury concluded, everyone might have been saved. And as to nagging reports of blocked exits? “From evidence,” the inquest report concluded, “we are prepared to refute that awful suggestion, that any were temporarily prevented, by barring of the doors, from leaving the rooms.”[6]

The Granite Mill Fire was just one chapter in a long battle between mill workers and owners, who could exert influence in courts and the legislature. But workers had other ways of voicing their frustrations and making their concerns known.

A folk song written within five days of the disaster was forbidden to be performed at a workers’ benefit in Fall River’s Music Hall, perhaps because it disagreed with the coroner’s jury:

They were men and women there
And children, too, I’m told,
Who might have been saved from out of the flames
If the truth was only known.

But oh, the villains that locked the doors
And told them to keep still,
It was the bosses and overseers
That burning Granite Mill.
[7]

Fall River Daily News, September 24, 1874

This song evolved and became an important way of memorializing the event and honoring its victims. Twenty years after the fire, in March 1894, Leopold Lamoureux of Roxbury wrote to the editor of The Boston Globe that the reader who sought the words to “Granite Mill Fire” could write to him. “It was my father’s favorite,” Leopold wrote. “He saved about 20 people who were in that fire, and so naturally always had a partiality for the song.”[8]

The Grover Shoe Factory Disaster

Some thirty years after the Granite Mill Fire, neighboring Brockton suffered its own tragedy when a boiler exploded and set fire to the R. B. Grover Company’s shoe factory at the corner of Main and Calmar Streets.

Called “the most fearful disaster which has ever visited this city,”[9] the boiler exploded at 7:50 a.m. on March 20, 1905, with force equivalent to 660 pounds of dynamite.

Taunton Daily Gazette, March 21, 1905

About 300 workers were in the plant that morning producing the popular and rapidly growing line of Emerson leather shoes, sold at retail in more than 30 area stores. Without warning, the boiler launched itself through the four-story structure and into a house north of the factory. The mill roof collapsed, and the fire spread to nearby homes.

One hundred and fifty workers were seriously injured, and 58 were killed.[10] An inquest ruled that the explosion was caused by a hidden defect in the boiler, an old reserve model that had reluctantly been placed in service that morning to help warm the plant.

The Grover Shoe Factory disaster was another in a seemingly endless series of boiler explosions that plagued the nation throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This Old Colony tragedy led directly to the creation of the Massachusetts Boiler Code. In turn, the state’s stringent standards guided development of the first national boiler code in 1915.

A century later, the Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution proclaiming March 20, 2005, an official day of observance of the Grover shoe factory tragedy.[11] A beautiful granite memorial and gravesite for 40 victims is located in the city’s Melrose Cemetery on Pearl Street.

Melrose Cemetery, Brockton, MA
Melrose Cemetery, Brockton, MA

The Strand Theatre Fire

Thirty-six years later, on Monday, March 10, 1941, Brockton was visited by another devastating fire.

The day before, the beautiful, new, 1,685-seat Strand Theatre on the corner of Main and School Streets had featured Mickey Rooney’s “Hoosier School Boy” and Marjorie Reynolds in “Secret Evidence.” At 12:38 a.m. on Monday, long after the last patron was home safe and sound, the night custodian smelled smoke from the basement and pulled the fire alarm. Less than an hour later, a General Alarm brought the entire Brockton firefighting force to the scene.

The blaze spread rapidly through the walls and ventilation ducts to reach the roof. At about 1:15 a.m., as firefighters attacked the roof flames from the balcony of the Strand, the unprotected steel trusses above them suddenly gave way and the roof collapsed onto the balcony.

“I went into the burning Strand theatre with the firemen and was standing on the stage watching them at work in the balcony,” Brockton Enterprise reporter Cornelius T. Lyons wrote, “when suddenly there was a terrific roar and the roof fell in on them . . . The heavy snow on the theatre roof made the effects of the collapse even more terrifying than if the weather had been clear.”[12]

Taunton Daily Gazette, March 10, 1941

Later that Monday morning, with area firefighters having arrived and the fire under control, the injured and dead were evacuated from the scene of the collapse. Thirteen Brockton firefighters lost their lives while 22 more firefighters were injured.

The Strand Theatre fire is still one of the deadliest incidents of firefighter loss in U.S. history.[13] The cause of the blaze was never determined.

Every March 10, a memorial service is held at Brockton City Hall. On May 10, 2008, the city unveiled and dedicated the beautiful Brockton Firefighters Strand Theatre Memorial on City Hall Plaza. This bronze and granite statue of a 1940s firefighter also lists the 13 fallen heroes.[14]

Strand Theatre Firefighters Memorial, City Hall Plaza, Brockton, MA
Strand Theatre Firefighters Memorial, City Hall Plaza, Brockton, MA

Readers may also wish to visit the Brockton Fire Museum, which hosts its own Facebook page.

The Myles Standish State Forest Fire

Well within living memory for many Old Colony residents, a massive wildfire raced across the 12,000-acre Myles Standish State Forest in the towns of Plymouth and Carver on May 25, 1964.

Two days before, the fire, which had consumed 800 acres, appeared to be under control. On May 25, however, the wind changed direction, rekindling and pushing the fire from west to east.

Firefighters from dozens of communities organized themselves in a ten-mile circle around the inferno. “At the height of the blaze,” the papers reported, “it threatened to sweep through to the Cape Cod Canal, about eight miles away.”[15] Four hundred residences were evacuated. Five hundred Boy Scouts camping in the area were evacuated safely. Farmers flooded their cranberry bogs to protect their vulnerable crops. The blaze cut a path of devastation 1,500 feet wide and four miles long.[16]

Only after consuming 5,500 acres and 26 buildings, including damage to the Scout properties of Camps Squanto and Cachalot, did the blaze encounter the natural firewall of White Island Pond and burn itself out.[17]

May 1964 will be remembered not only for this enormous Myles Standish blaze but as an excessively dry month that exhausted firefighters in the Old Colony and throughout Massachusetts. On May 27 alone, the eastern part of the state recorded 50 new wood fires.[18]

However, the largest and hottest fire ever affecting New England occurred more than a century before and was nearly 9,500 miles away. Ironically, this calamity would be true “fire and ice,” a fire that nearly froze the Old Colony to death.

1816: The Year Without A Summer

On April 7, 1815, the volcano of Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa erupted. On April 10, a single vent of “liquid fire” could be seen 20 kilometers away.[19]

Tambora is estimated to be the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history. The ash and debris ejected from the volcano were ten times greater than Krakatoa’s eruption in 1883 and 100 times greater than the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. Ten thousand people died immediately on Sumbawa and perhaps 100,000 worldwide in the resulting famine and disease.

By the summer of 1815, spectacular red sunsets in London would inspire the brilliant landscapes of painter J.M.W. Turner. By year’s end, the residents of Teramo, Italy, reported snowfall of red and yellow flakes.[20]

Distance would not spare residents of the Old Colony. Some 60 megatons of sulfur aerosols emitted by the volcano gradually encircled the Northern Hemisphere, reflecting enough of the sun’s radiation that surface temperatures cooled by as much as 4.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

The winter of 1815–1816 in eastern Massachusetts was unremarkable. April came in like a lamb. But then, the season turned upside down.

April departed with a blast of snow and ice. In May, buds froze and ice formed on standing water. And then, it grew dry enough in the Old Colony that forest fires raged — a preview of the Myles Standish blaze more than a century later. “At Dartmouth, Mass.,” local historian Sidney Perley wrote, “a pile of brush was injudiciously set on fire, and in a few hours the fire had spread over several square miles of field and forest, destroying fences, trees, etc., to the amount of twenty thousand dollars in value,” or about $400,000 in today’s currency.[21]

“June was the coldest ever known in this latitude,” one report noted, with “almost everything green killed.”[22] That included frogs, hummingbirds, and things not-so-green, such as sparrows and “the yellow cucumber bug,” so decimated by the cold that it was not seen again for a decade.[23]

On June 6th and 7th, parts of New England got a half foot of snow.[24]

“Spring, summer, and autumn seem to have been blended together,” Boston’s Columbian Centinel reported. “No month passed without frost nor one without snow at the northward.”[25]

Perley referred to 1816 as “the poverty year” and “eighteen hundred and froze to death.” Farmers planted and replanted, never able to get ahead of the killing frosts. People ate pigeons, hedgehogs, and raccoons while foraging for nettles and wild turnips.[26] In New Hampshire, where the corn didn’t ripen to fatten the pigs, farmers turned to the sea in what they would later call the “mackerel year.”[27]

“To be alive in the years 1816–1818, almost anywhere in the world,” professor of Environmental Humanities Gillen D’Arcy Wood wrote, “meant to be hungry.”

The year without a summer was unforgettable for those who survived it. A cold snap in New England in June 1882, 66 years later, still conjured up 1816, thanks to “old people still living who remember it well and all its dreary incidents.”[28]

In 1908, a witty poem entitled “The Oldest Inhabitant” made the rounds of the nation’s newspapers:

I’ve skated on ice in the month of May,
In June I’ve traveled around in a sleigh,
And I froze an ear on a July day . . .
It was Eighteen Sixteen; I mind it yet —
Or Seventeen Sixteen — I ‘most forget —
But I don’t forget how it felt, you bet!
[29]

Just as the Granite Mill blaze led to improvements in mill design and the Grover Shoe Factory boiler disaster encouraged a national safety code, the “year without a summer” also had its silver linings.

Turner, of course, painted his landscape masterpieces. Mary Wollstonecraft spent that “wet, ungenial summer” cooped up with friends, including Lord Byron and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. To combat cabin fever, the group told ghost stories. The soon-to-be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley committed hers to paper, resulting in the classic novel Frankenstein.

Meanwhile, far away in Vermont, the summer of 1816 brought the Joseph Smith family their third failed crop in a row. Hoping to find more attractive farmland, the Smiths moved to Palmyra, New York. There, Joseph Jr. would one day discover the Golden Plates that became foundational to the Mormon religion.

Today, researchers believe that the erratic cold and drought of 1816 resulted from Tamboro’s eruption, an active period of sunspots, and an extended dip in the jet stream. This perfect storm, set within Earth’s “Little Ice Age” (1300–1870), may have been the most significant meteorological event to affect the world in the nineteenth century.[30]

For residents of the Old Colony, every summer cold snap for the next hundred years would be compared and inevitably dismissed as nothing so chilly and disheartening as 1816, the year without a summer.

Coming soon:
Part II: Some Say Ice (Wind and Rain)

Notes:

[1] “A Fall River Horror,” Taunton Daily Gazette, September 19, 1874.
[2] “An Appalling Disaster,” Boston Post, September 21, 1874.
[3] “Fall River Fire,” Taunton Daily Gazette, September 21, 1874.
[4] The Pilot, September 26, 1874, Web November 15, 2022.
[5] Marc Munroe Dion, “Mill Fire Sparked Workers’ Rights Battle,” Wickedlocal.com, April 14, 2009, Web, November 27, 2022.
[6] “The Fall River Disaster,” Boston Post, October 5, 1874.
[7] “The Granite Mill Fire,” traditional lyrics. For prohibition of the song at the Music Hall on October 1, 1874, see Fall River Daily Evening News, 24 September 1874.
[8] “Granite Mill Fire,” The Boston Globe, 26 March 1894.
[0] “Brockton’s Day of Fearful Horror,” Taunton Daily Gazette, March 20, 1905.
[10] Melissa Hanson, “Massachusetts’ Worst Disasters: These Fires, Hurricanes and Explosions Have Devastated the State,” MassLive, November 4, 2018, Web August 30, 2022.[11] Derek Canavan, “Remembering the 1905 Grover Shoe Factory Explosion,” The Bulletin, the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors, Fall 2005, Volume 60, Number 3.
[12] “Reported Eyewitness Of Tragedy,” Taunton Daily Gazette, March 10, 1941. There is dispute over how much snow was on the roof and how much it contributed to the collapse.
[13] Cody Sheard, “It Will Always Be Remembered,” The Enterprise, March 10, 2021, Web, November 23, 2022.
[14] “Brockton Firefighters Strand Theatre Memorial,” Saturday, May 10, 2008, Web, November 23, 2022, . See also Capt. Mark Picher BFD, “Remembering the Strand Fire,” Web November 23, 2022.
[15] “Cape Fire Is Held in Check After 45 Cottages Consumed,” The Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield, May 26, 1964.
[16] “Seek Arsonist After Huge Forest Fire,” Holyoke Daily Transcript, May 25, 1964.
[17] Melissa Hanson, “Massachusetts’ Worst Disasters: These Fires, Hurricanes and Explosions Have Devastated the State,” MassLive, November 4, 2018, Web August 30, 2022, . Also, May 25, 1964, “Fire Rages at Myles Standish State Forest,” Mass Moments, Web November 23, 2022.
[18] “Firefighters Gain Relief,” Taunton Daily Gazette, May 28, 1964.
[19] Erik Klemetti, “194 Years Since the Great Tambora Eruption,” Science, April 18, 2009.
[20] Michael Sean Munger, “1816: The Might Operations of Nature: An Enivronmental History of the Year Without A Summer,” thesis, Department of History and the Graduate School of the University of Oregon, June 2012, Web, November 25, 2022.
[21] Sidney Perley, Historic Storms of New England (rpt: Lark’s Haven Publishing, 2019, Kindle; The Salem Press, Salem, MA, 1891), loc. 3354.
[22] “Communications: A Year Without Summer,” The Boston Globe, August 17, 1872.
[23] Sidney Perley, Historic Storms of New England (rpt: Lark’s Haven Publishing, 2019, Kindle; The Salem Press, Salem, MA, 1891), loc. 3376.
[24] Eric P. Fisher, Mighty Storms of New England: The Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Blizzards, and Floods That Shaped the Region ( Globe Pequot, Guilford, CT, 2021), 71.
[25] Tom Henshaw, “New England Vignettes,” Athol Daily News, July 26, 1956.
[26] “1816: The Year Without Summer,” New England Historical Society, updated 2022, Web, November 25, 2022.
[27] Sidney Perley, Historic Storms of New England (rpt: Lark’s Haven Publishing, 2019, Kindle; The Salem Press, Salem, MA, 1891), loc. 3319.
[28] “The ‘Year Without a Summer’,” Fitchburg Sentinel, June 1, 1882.
[29] “The Oldest Inhabitant,” The Boston Globe, May 15, 1908.
[30] Eric P. Fisher, Mighty Storms of New England: The Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Blizzards, and Floods That Shaped the Region ( Globe Pequot, Guilford, CT, 2021), 69.

--

--

Old Colony History Museum

We are a local history museum in Taunton, MA and this is our blog! Visit us online at www.oldcolonyhistorymuseum.org to learn even more. Enjoy!