The Great Fire in Boston

Destruction of the Winthrop House and Freemason’s Hall

From “The Boston Evening Transcript” ~ April 4, 1864

Boston’s prominent Newspaper ~ 1830-1941

Last night, about 12 o’clock, fire was discovered in a closet under the second flight of stairs in the Masonic Fraternity’s Building on the corner of Tremont and Boylston streets. The building was a mammoth brick structure, composed of six stories, three of which were occupied as the Winthrop House, and the upper three as Freemason Halls.


Shortly after the first alarm was given, the Fire Department was on hand and began operations, but the great height of the building prevented the efficient work which otherwise would have stopped the conflagration at the onset. Owing to these obstacles the fire soon attained great headway, and raged with exceeding fierceness. The upper part of the building was soon one lurid mass of flame, and a second alarm was sounded a little before 1 o’clock.


Thousands of spectators assembled in the vicinity, chiefly on the lower part of the Common, and watched with the greatest interest the devastation of the devouring element. The firemen worked like Trojans in battling the flames, but with little avail, and at various intervals it seemed almost impossible for them to prevent the conflagration from spreading through Tremont and Boylston streets.


Between the hours of 1 and 2 o’clock, the appearance of the burning structure, thoroughly on fire from roof to cellar – – with the glowing flames shooting from the windows and streaming into the heaven – – was a spectacle of terrific grandeur. At this period all the surrounding buildings, for a considerable distance, were most brilliantly illuminated; and in fact the light overspread the whole southern section of the city, and was also distinctly visible for miles in the country.


Such was the rapid progress of the flames that the nearly 200 inmates of the Winthrop House had barely time to escape with their lives, most of them losing all their personal effects. The Hotel Pelham, Evans House, and Adams House were kindly thrown open for their accommodations.


The Winthrop House was leased by Col. I. H. Silsby, whose furniture was elegant and nearly new, and was almost wholly destroyed. It was valued at about $50,000, and insured for about one-half that amount. So intent was Col. Silsby in looking after the safety of his boarders, that he gave little attention to his own property, and even lost all his clothing except what he wore.


At one time it was thought that the southerly portion of the building on Boylston Street might be saved, and trunks, furniture, &c. were removed to the rooms on that side of the hotel. But this hope was futile, and all the articles thus removed were destroyed.


The Masonic fraternity have experienced an almost irreparable loss by this fire. The estate was purchased by the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in 1859, and since that time the following named organizations have held their regular meetings in the halls which were fitted up at great expense expressly for their use, viz.: the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts; St. John’s Lodge; St. Andrew’s; Massachusetts; Columbian; Mount Lebanon: Germania: Winslow Lewis; Revere; Joseph Warren; Aberdour; Grand Consistory; Grand Royal Arch Chapter; St. Andrew’s Chapter; St. Paul’s Chapter; Grand Encampment of Knights Templar; De Molay Encampment; St. Bernard Encampment.


It is impossible to give any very correct estimate of the value of the property in Freemason’s Hall, some of which cannot be replaced. All of the various lodges were losers to a large extent. The De Molay, Boston and St. Bernard Encampments, the Consistory, Lodge of Perfection, and Chapter of Rose Croix lost their beautiful and costly regalia.


A large number of valuable pictures were also destroyed, including a fine original portrait of Gen. Joseph Warren, which belonged to the Massachusetts Lodge. There were likewise highly-prized portraits of Gen. Washington, Price, the First Grand Master of this Commonwealth, and also of all the Grand Masters from 1780 to the present time. Among other property belonging to the Masons were two organs – – one costing $2,000, and the other about $400 – – and both were consumed.

It is estimated that $100,000 will not cover the losses to the masonic order in furniture and paintings alone.  The building, for which they originally paid $106,000, had been so improved as to make its value $156,000, a large portion of which is insured.


The fire raged with unabated fierceness from 12 o’clock till 3 o’clock this morning. The roof fell in shortly after 1 o’clock, and the floors of the three upper stories fell within two hours. During this period about half of the highest wall on Boylston Street fell into the street with a tremendous crash, filling up the avenue and projecting bricks through the windows on the opposite side.


Although there was great danger of the burning of other buildings adjacent to the Winthrop House, the immense volumes of water thrown by the steam fire engines confined the fire to the hotel, and thus effectually prevented what must otherwise have been one of the most destructive conflagrations ever known in our city.


This morning at a late hour the men were still at work in subduing the flames. The interior of the building is a perfect ruin. The swell front wall on Tremont Street, the North wall, a portion of the rear wall, with a section of the Boylston Street wall, are still standing.


The Winthrop House was first opened as a hotel by Co. Silsby, in November, 1850, and comprised two large dwelling-houses, to which a third was subsequently added. It was then owned by the Winthrop House Company, who sold it to the Freemasons in 1859, as we have previously stated. In the spring of 1859 the hotel was closed up, and the furniture sold at auction; but in the Fall of the same year it was again reopened by Col. Silsby, who has ever conducted it as a first-class public house, the destruction of which must be regarded as a great loss to the community.


The proprietor of the hotel thinks the fire must have been set by an incendiary, as the house was heated by steam, and no fire whatever was used in that part of the building where the conflagration originated. It was first discovered by Mr. George H. Pike, assistant superintendent of Masonic Hall, who had just closed the rooms under his charge, in which a meeting of the Revere Lodge had been held, and was coming down stairs, when he perceived smoke issuing from a closet as before stated.


A total of $55,000.00 of insurance was collected on the Winthrop House building, which was owned by the Grand Lodge of Masons, which was paid by a variety of Insurance Companies. An additional $6,100.00 was collect by the Grand Lodge for loss of personal property and regalia.


St. Andrew’s Royal Arch Chapter had insurance at the American Insurance Company of Boston for $800.00. A policy of $3,000.00 on the property of the De Molay Encampment expired a short time before the fire and was not renewed, while a $10,000.00 policy was paid to Boston Encampment, but did not cover its $20,000.00 loss of regalia and other personal property.


Mr. Silsby estimated his lost from $45,000.00 to $50,000.00, but only recovered $20,000.00 from his insurance company.