Many of the Boston’s wharves fell victim to fires during the 1950s and 1960s. The Union Wharf fire on November 2, 1952 was one of the most spectacular blazes ever seen in the North End or Boston’s waterfront.
Union Wharf on Commercial Street was “built to burn” and long feared by Boston firefighters, according to a Boston Fire Historical Society’s account. A city document titled, A Day in November by Robertson Page details the risk presented by a wooden freight shed on the property, J-shaped, 600-foot long and 2-stories high.
With little rain in the preceding weeks, low humidity and a light wind, November 2, 1952 presented ideal conditions for a fire. In days leading up to the Union Wharf blaze, there were hundreds of brush and grass fires throughout the city. It was already a busy Sunday that morning for firefighters with large fires in West Roxbury, Mission Hill and Hyde Park.
At 12:43 p.m. on that Sunday, reports started to come in about a fire at Union Wharf. Within five minutes, four alarms were struck and a 5th shortly thereafter. Engine Company 8 from Hanover Street responded first joined shortly by 28 other engine companies, 5 ladder companies, 3 rescue companies, 2 water towers and 2 fireboats. Additional support came in from the US Navy and Coast Guard with firefighting tug boats.
It was a huge fire, described in BFD’s account as a “raging inferno of rolling flames and heavy, black smoke threatening the entire waterfront.” The amount of firehose used (29,650 feet) set a record for the city. An estimated crowd of 25,000 spectators showed up to watch the blaze that raged through the day into the night.
Firefighters used dozens of water streams to contain the fire. In particular, water curtains were set up to prevent it from spreading to the coal bunkers at the Lincoln Wharf power plant. Water guns were also used at Sargent’s Wharf and between the Union Wharf structures on Commercial Street which was closed. Multiple fireboats attacked the blaze from Boston Harbor.
Although over 100 firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation, only 5 were hospitalized and there were no serious injuries sustained.
The initial cause of the fire was never determined. Piles of wooden boxes and rubber were being stored in the shed building and it appears the fire burned inside long before it was apparent from the outside. There were no alarms, sprinklers or fire walls in the 600-foot long structure.
The Union Wharf fire had impacts throughout the city. After the 5th alarm was struck, Boston radio stations warned citizens that BFD apparatus was depleted and to use every precaution to avoid grass and brush fires. Those warnings sharply reduced the number of fire alarms received in the city that had already seen over 500 reports in the last 3 days.
The city report ended with a testament to the firemen who fought the Union Wharf fire and those throughout the city that weekend.
“Those who saw duty during this period will remember it well. Those who looked in from the outside will also remember it. In particular, they will recall it as a time when men were asked to meet certain tests — and met them well. And finally, they will remember having witnessed an inspiring demonstration of teamwork, that quality without which no human endeavor can succeed. “
Union Wharf remained vacant for decades after the fire. The five story granite warehouse, built in the 1840’s, was largely spared by the fire and refurbished in the 1970’s as one of the first condominium sites on the North End’s waterfront.
Read about more historical fires in Boston’s Fire Trail by the Boston Fire Historical Society.