It was a Thursday afternoon, about 1 p.m., and the upstairs hall was being painted. In less than an hour, Braintree Town Hall would be engulfed in flames.
The main gathering room of the building, built in 1858, was lit by a large chandelier containing 32 candles for each of the states in the union. Faulty wiring in the chandelier, disturbed by renovations, likely sparked the blaze. But the story of the Town Hall brought down by fire on July 20, 1911 is about much more than just the initial sparks.
In the early days after the formation of communities like Braintree, municipal business was often held in meeting houses owned by the town, according to H. Hobart Holly's Braintree Massachusetts: Its History. Town officials, like the famous Asa French, whose house remains standing across from , performed their jobs at home or places of business.
Later, the meeting houses became exclusively churches, and communities created their own government buildings. Braintree's first dedicated town building was at the corner of Washington and Union streets, near the house of French, who was Town Clerk when the building was constructed, in 1829. The hall, built at a cost of $800 at the time, was used for 28 years.
A Celebrated Hall Catches Fire
Members of Braintree's light infantry and the Weymouth Brass Band marched down Washington Street on July 29, 1858, traveling from the church of Rev. Dr. Storrs to a five-acre plot of land donated to the town on the death of Josiah French.
On the land stood the brand-new, two-and-a-half story Braintree Town Hall. The dedication party that day, according to records kept by the , included the governor, selectmen from Quincy, Randolph and Weymouth, the Norfolk County Sheriff, plenty of residents on horseback and groups of school children.
Charles Francis Adams, grandson of Braintree native John Adams, gave a two-hour speech, which included his revelation that he had found the deed from 1665 in which Wampatuck signed over much of Braintree's land. Then, with a thunderstorm raging overhead, the party really got started in the upstairs ballroom.
"At about 11 o'clock the speakers wound up and dancing commenced," according to an account at the BHS. "Those who had speeches printed, and were ready to furnish slips, put them in their pockets, forgot the cares and anxieties of political life, and displayed good sense by selecting pretty girls for partners and dancing humbly to the pleasing strains of the Germania Band, which furnished the music for afternoon and evening."
Downstairs, Town Hall held offices for local officials, an armory and a classroom. The hall itself was a real focal point of the community, where most if not all of the town's residents found themselves regularly, Town Clerk Joe Powers said.
"It was a beautiful building," Powers said, "that was meant not just to be at the center of town, but at the heart of the town."
After the 1858 opening, additions followed swiftly through the years, including a grand piano in the ballroom, gas lighting, electricity, the high school moving out to its former spot on Washington Street, and then in 1910 a vault, installed to safeguard Town Hall's valuable records.
That vault would come in handy just a year later, though it could not save every record. Precinct records and various other papers were lost in the fire, according to Holly.
"It buys you time," Powers said of the vault, of which there are now several in Town Hall. "That little time perhaps made the difference. ... My understanding of that fire is that it was fast and furious."
Fire Causes Then and Town Hall Today
A tour of the present-day Town Hall, and the fire department that protects it, shows upgrades that stand in stark relief to the limited firefighting apparatus of 1911.
Back then, when the first alarm was struck at 1:10 p.m. on July 20, painters working in the main hall quickly found that an emergency house was not long enough to reach the attic, where the flames first lept, according to an account of the fire written by an investigative committee at the time.
Eight or nine minutes after the alarm rang, a hose wagon arrived, followed ten minutes later by another wagon and a hook and ladder. Thirty minutes after that an additional hook and ladder and wagon came on scene. But a burst line and other restrictions kept the firefighters outside, spraying water up toward the roof.
The water pressure itself proved too little for the task – about 45 pounds per square inch coming out of the hydrants, compared to at least 90 today – and by the time an all-out signal was blown at 7:15 p.m., the roof and copula had collapsed and Town Hall was a total loss.
"The importance of a first class fire department," the committee's report said, "should be more fully realized and appreciation shown by a more liberal appropriation of money than has been customary."
One hundred years later, the department has vastly superior equipment, both for physically fighting fires and communicating with its firefighters and other towns.
Back in 1911, for instance, firefighters did not have air tanks that allow them to go inside and fight a fire from within, Braintree training officer Rich Nigrelli said. There are also more officers, who are on-call, 24 hours a day, seven days per week. Alarms have improved, thermal imaging equipment is available to see fire through walls, ladders are sturdier and longer, radios and cell phones allow for quick communication and firefighter training has gotten more comprehensive.
Town Hall itself now contains smoke and heat alarms, more protective sheetrock, fire extinguishers and brightly-lit exit signs. Building codes limit its capacity, fire escapes dot the outside and the doors have key locks rather than heavy chains strung across them.
Less than a year after Town Hall burned, in March of 1912, the town voted to build a new meeting place and put aside $70,550 for the effort. Construction began that June and was completed in time for a dedication ceremony on June 26, 1913.
The day was cloudy, according to a report in the Braintree Observer, but with no rain. At next to Town Hall, the Braintree White Sox battled the Braintree Athletic Association to a 2-1 victory after 14 innings. Some 5,000 people were estimated to be in attendance.
Following the game, a band from Brockton and the Punch and Judy Show took over as entertainment, along with hose laying and ladder raising contests for the firefighters. At 6:30 p.m., a spread of roast turkey, salads, fruits, cake and coffee was laid out in the main level auditorium.
That first floor no longer contained an armory or the high school, which today puts on its graduation ceremonies at the football field in good weather. Back in 1911, though, just a month before the infamous fire, Braintree's graduating class took to Town Hall with an 8 p.m. ceremony, their class motto full of unplanned foreboding.
"The Path of Duty," they exclaimed, "is the Path of Safety."