Nantucket's Great Fire: A Tiny Spark Becomes a Raging Inferno

Aug 27, 2018

A 1945 pumper truck, on loan from the Nantucket Hotel for the Great Fire tour around downtown Nantucket.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

This year marks the 172nd anniversary of the Great Fire that destroyed much of Nantucket’s downtown. 

Recently, the Nantucket Historical Association sponsored a “Great Fire Tour,” complete with a vintage 1945 pumper truck on loan from the Nantucket Hotel. With about ten people aboard, the fire truck began slowly lumbering through Nantucket’s downtown – vastly different today from what it was in 1846.

Sean Allen, a Senior Interpreter at the Nantucket Whaling Museum, narrates the Great Fire Tour.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

“Today it’s a much wider street. The buildings are a little more spaced out and not all of them are made from wood. Back then it was a much more narrow street, easily congested. All the buildings and sidewalks were made of wood,” said Sean Allen, a senior interpreter at the Nantucket Whaling Museum who’s narrating the tour. 

In the 1840s, Nantucket was at the peak of its prominence as a whaling port, with over 70 whaling vessels, and many support industries along the waterfront.

“All the blacksmith shops, all of these different oil processing facilities such as candle factories, oil refineries, warehouses, oil sheds that are storing these barrels are all here down by the waterfront. It is a keg of gunpowder ready to explode,” Allen said. 

The town bought its first fire engine in 1750, and established the office of Fire Warden in 1765. In the 1780s, a lookout tower was placed inside the Unitarian Church tower. But these efforts, as well as a fine of two dollars for smoking in the streets, would prove hopelessly inadequate to stop a major fire in town.

The Lion's Paw, at the corner of Main and Union Streets, was Geary's Hat Shop in 1846. The fire started here around 11 PM the night of July 13th.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

Today, the Lion’s Paw sits at the corner of Main and Union Streets. In 1846, it was Geary’s Hat Shop. Owner William Geary pressed his hats using irons heated in an oven. Every evening, Geary put out the fire and walked home, just as he did the night of July 13th, 1846. 

“Unbeknownst to him, inside a clogged stovepipe in the walls, a tiny spark caught. And this spark multiplied rapidly – it grew and grew and grew, thickly coating the walls, and soon flames were leaping out of the window lattice at 11 o’clock,” said Allen. “This is when a passerby sees the fire and alerts the town watchman, who shouts the cry from the Unitarian Church tower: ‘There’s a fire!!!’”

An original firefighting apparatus brought in to help extinguish the great fire.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

Two of the island’s ten firefighting companies arrived on the scene, which was still somewhat manageable. But they couldn’t agree on how to work together to put out the blaze, which was helped along that night by a stiff breeze. 

“While they’re bickering, rather quickly, flames from this building, jumped to Washington Hall right adjacent to it. And by midnight, this fire is raging beyond anyone’s control. It quickly crosses the narrow street and consumes basically all of Main Street,” Allen said. 

The fire reached the dock area, setting off a number of tremendous explosions in the oil sheds and oil refineries, where barrels of oil were being processed into highly flammable candles.

A close-up of some of the firefighting equipment from 1846.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

The fire continued raging through town, engulfing the Athenaeum, and in the process, burning town records, whaling artifacts and historical documents. A third of the town was destroyed, causing over a million dollars in damage – almost $33-million dollars today. Although no lives were lost in the Great Fire, 800 Nantucketers were left homeless.

The town eventually rebuilt, and fire standards became much stricter. Today, the prevalence of brick buildings along Main Street is evidence of how the island sought to ensure that a great fire could never happen again.