Fifty years ago today, a small fire broke out on the back porch of a home on Bellflower St.

Tom Mulvoy, Associate Editor
May. 22, 2014

A firefighter struggles to keep his footing during the Bellflower Street fire in May 1964. Photo courtesy City of Boston Archives

The weather was typical for late spring in Boston: warm (80 degrees), dry, and windy (20 mph) out of the southwest.

It was Friday, May 22, 1964, and given the climate of the day, it wouldn’t take much to have a fire break out, which one did, about 1:30 in the afternoon on the back porch of 26 Bellflower St. in Dorchester, according to reports filed later by the Boston Fire Department.

Bellflower Street, which runs from Dorchester Avenue on the east to Boston Street on the west, was at the time a model of the three-decker neighborhoods that give some Boston precincts a special look; the wooden structures also offered a spreading fire plenty of space to grow. From the rear porch at No. 26, the fire spread quickly to adjoining homes, turning the street and the neighborhood into a cauldron of devastation.

Fighting the blaze, which destroyed 17 homes on Bellflower and Dorset streets, damaged 10 others on those streets and nearby Howell and Boston streets, caused some 250 roof fires, left 300 people homeless, and sent some 35 responders and residents to City Hospital, was a monumental task, too big for the Boston force alone to fight from Acting Chief of Department John Clougherty’s command post at Boston and Howell streets.

It took two hours before firefighters could see that the fire was being contained and during that horrific time firefighter teams from all across eastern Massachusetts heeded the call from Boston for help at the scene and with covering neighborhood fire houses: They came from Brookline, Cambridge, Newton, Somerville, Winthrop, Chelsea, Dedham, Everett, Milton, Arlington, Belmont, Holbrook, Lawrence, Lynn, Medford, Needham, Quincy, Revere, Waltham, Watertown, Wellesley, Weymouth, Woburn, Hingham, Lexington, Reading, Norwood, the US Navy Yard in Charlestown, and the Naval Air Station in So. Weymouth.

City of Boston archivist John J. McColgan is one of many who remembers that day 50 years ago with the clarity that horror brings to the senses:

“I remember it well. It was a Friday, and that morning was my last day of classes in my final year at BC High. After class got out, I was at Uphams Corner and suddenly spotted a monster plume of black smoke with tongues of orange flame shooting from the top of it. When I got there it was surprising how enormous this specter of fire and smoke was given how far away I had been. I remember the back of a three-decker going up in a sheet of flame in about a minute. There had been a lot of dry weather and there was a steady breeze that day. It was said that water pressure in the hydrants was low. Fire engines came from all over greater Boston.

“Miraculously, no one was killed. But it’s a day I never have and never will forget.”

The city’s Archives has set up an array of photos and documents about the Bellflower Street fire on its Flickr page.