December 21, 2015

“The Vehemence of the Flames”: The History of Three Fires at the Old State House

My name is Deirdre Kutt and I am an Education Associate at the Old State House. What interested me in contributing to "On King Street" was the opportunity to address some of the exciting, weird, and interesting facts about the Old State House. Prompted by visitors’ questions about the building's fires, I began my research there. What I discovered through my investigation is a fascinating, yet remarkable, story. Follow along as I share the history of three significant fires at the Old State House.

The Fire of 1747

Fire!  Fire! The Town House (now known as the Old State House) has endured many fires over the years.  In fact, it was built in 1713 with a brick facade to replace the original wooden Town House, which burned to the ground in 1711.

On December 15, 1747 The Boston Gazette reported:
“At six in the morning the Watch in the east end of the Town House broke up, and between five and ten minutes after, the rays of the fire first discovered it in the said passage through the great window against it, by glancing into the Chambers of the houses on the north side of the Town House where two or three people were awake, and running to the windows first saw it there. But it quickly broke into the Council Chamber and run up the deal wainscot stairs into the loft and lanthorn above and set them all in a blaze.”
MS0119/DC 352.52 - General Court orders
payment for repairs of the Old State House, 1751
The 1747 fire, which started in one of the many hearths in the building, devastated the Town House. On that fateful night, embers from the hearth located near the entryway between the Council Chamber and the Chamber for Representatives Hall made their way into the woodworking underneath, caught fire, and engulfed the entryway between the two chambers.  The growing flames continued up from the staircase onto the roof until the entire building was ablaze.

This devastating fire left the Town House destroyed with damages to the top two floors, roof, and the tower.  Only the brick exterior walls remained untouched by the fire. Besides the physical damages, records indicate that the Province lost many items including Province records, books, portraits, and “a great Quantity of Wines and other Liquors.”

Massachusetts residents repaired the building in 1748 at a cost of about £3705, which was split between the Province, the County of Suffolk, and the Town of Boston. The rebuilding of the Town House saw changes to the exterior in the design of the tower and roof. In 1748, the former octagonal tower and gambrel roof was replaced with a pitched roof and a three-staged square tower, which is still present on the building today.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we post about the other two fires that devastated the Old State House.

By Deirdre Kutt, Education Associate

December 14, 2015

Treating the fish to tea

There is a small exhibit case in the Society's library where I can display a rotating selection of items from our archival collection.  Our library is open by appointment, so the only individuals who get to see this featured document are researchers, staff members, and visitors to our library and administrative offices.  But thanks to the blog, I can share images and information about this featured item with friends near and far.

On December 16 we recognize the 242 year anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.  Over the years, this important event in American history has been commemorated in many ways, including plaques, reenactments, poems, and songs – like “Tea Tax”, the lyrics of which are currently on display in our library.

According to our catalog, this broadside dates to circa 1862.  It published the lyrics to “Tea Tax” with a notation that it was “sung with unbounded applause at the Boston Theatre, by Mr. Andrews.”  While researching this song, I found some references to it being a "Yankee Comic Song." It certainly does not make light of the events that occurred on the evening of December 16, it does present the narrative in a lighthearted tone.  One part of the song describes dumping the tea into the harbor and goes, "And did'nt care a tarnal curse, for any King or Minister / We made a plaguy mess o'tea, in one of the biggest dishes / I mean, we steep'd it in the sea, and treated all the fishes."

If you look closely at the lyrics, you'll also be able to see that they point out locations in Boston that have changed since 1773, specifically that State Street was called King Street and that the bridge to Charlestown had not been built yet.

There are many reprints of this song in existence, the earliest dating to the 1830s.  In some of the broadsides the composer is listed as “a gentleman from Boston” and some state that the song was performed at the Federal Street Theatre, which was another name from the Boston Theatre. 

Besides this broadside, we do not have too many other Tea Party related artifacts in our collection.  But if you are in the area, be sure to stop by the Colony to Commonwealth exhibit at the Old State House to see one of our other important Tea Party artifacts - a vial of loose tea that was allegedly removed from the boots of Thomas Melvill after the Tea Party.  According to the story, Thomas found the tea on his boot when he returned home from the night's activity, and collected it to be saved.  The tea was then donated to the Society in 1899 by Miss Mary Melville, a descendant of Thomas. 

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager