The Shoe Factory’s Demise
Jamaica Plain’s Most Unforgettable Fire
By Walter H. Marx
"Instantly the raging fire rolls to the rooftop with its wind; the flames overcome all; the blazing tide roars heavenward." Vergil, Aeneid 11. 758.9
To a modern observer the corner of Bickford and Centre Streets opposite the Bromley-Heath Housing Development is a vast overgrown wasteland covered with countless fragments of red brick in all sizes. The side on Centre Street is in the process of becoming JP Plaza. Nearby a chimneystack stands atop a chamber once connected to something else. That something was the five-storied brick and white stone-trimmed Thomas G. Plant Shoe Factory, Jamaica Plain’s largest manufactory.
Then running along Bickford Street to its former corner at Minden, to the heart of "Little Germany," the plant covered a good third of the city block of Centre, Walden, Minden, and Bickford Streets with the open area given over to a picnic area for employees and some cooling apparatus.
Built late in the 19th century for Thomas Gustave Plant, a Maine lad and inventor in the shoe industry, the factory at its height employed 4,000 workers from the surrounding German-Irish neighborhood. Quality and efficiency were trademarks of the factory. Workers wore color-coded uniforms. Ramps and elevators enabled boys wearing roller skates to get quickly throughout the complex. Plant paid a higher wage than the going rate and provided a library, gymnasium, and swimming pool.
Plant’s concern for his workers in an age of vast labor exploitation was no mere chance. Born in Bath in 1859, he left his home state and school at the age of 13 to support himself making shoes in Boston. He had known the bottom of the ladder, but with his perceptive and inventive mind he devised and patented items for making shoes. He was finally able to buy a business and to expand in the suburban Boston area with headquarters in JP. When a strike hit before World War I, Plant sold out to United Shoe Co., which ran it into the 1950’s.
The factory is certainly the reason that our area grew to be known as "Shoemaker Plain" to prior generations - yet another corruption of the name of the Massachusetts Indian Sachem who gave his name to our area. When the shoemaking ceased in the 1950’s, the vast enterprise was broken up into quarters of small businesses, art studios, and apartments. But on the rainy Sunday night of February 1, 1976, persons unknown decided that all this should end.
Managing to turn off the sprinkler system and start fires at various points nearly simultaneously, the arsonist(s) provided an historic fire. For the first time in the city’s history all but one of Boston’s engine companies were at a single fire with additional apparatus called in from surrounding communities, while 23 Metropolitan Boston municipalities manned Boston’s firehouses. The first alarm was sounded at 9:28 p.m. By the time the first engines arrived, all the plant, with its flammable wood interior was aflame.
The burning of the city of Troy so vividly portrayed in Homer’s Iliad and in Book II of Vergil’s Aeneid, could not have been more graphic. Of the fires this chronicler has ever seen this was by far the tops. By chance he had looked out of a window several blocks west of Plant’s to view a sky pulsating with an orange-and-red glow. A quick walk in its direction confirmed the initial guess that it was Plant’s. All was afire, and noise was added as the 80-foot brick walls constantly crashed down into the street.
Pictures taken on the scene could hardly do justice to the immense force of the fire in one area, which under other weather conditions could have been a disaster. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries, the fire being confined to the factory, but all personal possessions were lost in the raging conflagration. Throughout the wet night of February 1 scores of firemen fought a firestorm that waged total war with its place of origin. By dawn it was finally out; little was left for the wrecking crane. Plant’s looked like a remnant of the Great Boston Fire of 1872.
Many former employees journeyed back to the place where they had once worked to pay for school, help start a family, or support their siblings. The fire went to five alarms with $1,000,000 damage. Fire Commissioner George Paul echoed most spectators: "I’ve never seen such a volume of fire in one building. Never have I seen bright orange flames (the hottest type) burn for so long a time. Tongues of flame up to 200 feet high shot up many times during the night."
Sources: Jamaica Plain Citizen Feb. 4, 1976; Boston Fire Department records; Boston Globe February 2 and 4, 1976. Reprinted with permission from the August 9, 1991 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.