Baltimore's Great Fire of 1904 and Its Legacy
Great Baltimore Fire Devastation
"The Great Baltimore Fire," Auntie said, settling back in her white straight backed chair. "I remember that. I was just a girl. We'd just come out of church and heard a big explosion. You could feel it in your feet; the pavement rumbled and a huge cloud of smoke rose up in the west. We thought it was the end of the world."
It was the morning of February 7, 1904. West of the church, a pile of wood shavings had caught fire in a dry goods store and spread, smoke and heat bellowing upwards. The ensuing explosion shook the quiet Sunday streets of Baltimore.
So began the Great Baltimore Fire, a conflagration that would burn 140 acres of downtown Baltimore, 70 city blocks, destroying over 1500 buildings and burning out 2500 businesses. The fire threw 35,000 people out of work and sent the city into a turmoil of flames and smoke for two days.
Before the Fire
Baltimore authorities had long been conscious of the threat of fire. In 1747, city ordinances required home owners to keep ladders tall enough to reach their roof tops and forbade the use of highly combustible fuels. By 1763 an organized volunteer fire department was in place, aided, by 1769, by hand powered water pumps. The construction of attached wooden buildings in congested areas of the city was outlawed in 1799.
Volunteer fire fighters were lauded as heroes in the early part of the 19th century and marched in parades. A rowdy pride developed as volunteer companies occasionally erupted in drunken brawls or all out riots. Buy the mid 19th century a sense of sophistication led Baltimore to create professional companies of regulated fire fighters.
The Clay Street Fire erupted on the morning of July 25, 1873 in a rubbish bin at a sash and blind factory. The fire quickly spread as workers jumped from windows. Panicked people blocked traffic and looters took advantage of the confusion. Before the fire was contained at 4:00 PM, 100 buildings spread over 4 blocks were destroyed.
Baltimore Late 18th Century Wood Houses
Great Baltimore Fire Erupts 2/7/1904
On the morning of Sunday, February 7, 1904, a passing private watchman noticed smoke pouring from the basement of Hurst and Company, a dry goods business located on the south side of German (now Redwood) Street between Liberty and Hopkins Place. Shortly before 11:00 AM, a heat activated fire alarm alerted the fire department.
The fire department responded quickly and a crowd gathered as smoke began to pour from the 4th floor windows. Firefighters broke down a door, causing a backdraft. A vertical draft shot up an elevator shaft as oxygen reentered the burning building, igniting combustible gasses.
The resulting explosion created a terrible roar and a sound like rolling thunder coursed the narrow streets. The shock wave threw people to the ground a half block away.
Collapsing walls crushed fire fighting equipment and flames leapt to an adjacent building whose facade had been damaged by the explosion. Firebrands and sparks shot through blown out windows and a hard southwest wind fanned flames down the streets.
As one building collapsed, a fire horse named Goliath veered sharply away. Despite his scorched flesh, the huge Percheron dragged his team, several fire fighters, and their equipment to safety through an obstacle course of burning rubble.
Intense heat kept firefighters at bay as shooting flames ignited gunpowder stored in a nearby warehouse, resulting in a second explosion.
Steam powered fire engines lacked power to shot water above second stories. The fire became a raging out-of-control inferno. By 11:40 AM, authorities requested assistance from Washington DC.
The Hurst Building 15 Minutes After the Alarm
Remains of the Hurst Building
Fire Fighters Circa 1904
Fire Burns Out of Control
Fortunately, the business and financial district was fairly empty on a Sunday morning. But morning church goers gathered, fascinated by the drama. Businessmen hurried to remove documents, goods, and cash from buildings in the path of the blaze. Teamsters arrived with horses and wagons to assist in the removal of goods, while thongs of businessmen bid for their services. Streets became clogged as crowds interfered with police setting up roadblocks and the passage of fire equipment.
By noon, Baltimore police requested out of state assistance.
When DC fire fighters arrived on the scene, they discovered that their equipment was not compatible with Baltimore hydrants. In those days, fire fighting equipment met no national standards and varied city by city. Poorly matched and hastily bound couplings emitted weak streams of water. Fire fighters ran out of hose as buildings collapsed.
Afterwards, Philadelphia and New York City fire departments criticized the manner in which Baltimore fire fighters approached a burning building. While the Philadelphia and New York fire fighters fought flames from the front in order to prevent the fire from spreading to other structures, Baltimore fire fighters attempted to extinguish flames from the side or rear in a building that was already beyond hope.
A few business owners were able to save their buildings. Workers at the Jackson company on Lombard near Liberty Street draped wet blankets over the edge of the roof, keeping the fabric saturated throughout the ordeal.
Militia Keeping Back the Crowds
By 4:00 PM, the electric street cars failed. Fortunately, the Baltimore & Ohio RR Station stood on the outskirts of the fire zone. Male and female volunteers trundled wheelbarrows and baskets of coal from the station to fuel the steam powered engines.
The trains brought fire fighters and equipment from as far as New York City, and were crowded with spectators, reporters, and people with interests in Baltimore business.
Newspapers closed down as the fire approached. The Herald's staff believed their building to be fire-proof and stayed on, watching the fire from the 5th floor. Evacuated at 9:00 PM Sunday night, the staff, including a young city editor named H. L. Mencken, moved operations to Washington DC. The Baltimore American resumed publication by Tuesday, February 9 using offices offered by the Washington Times. The Baltimore Sun used the offices of the Washington Evening Star after the beautiful iron fronted Sun Building collapsed when the metal bent in the heat of the fire.
Telegraph offices fell before the rapacious fire. Eleven blocks north of the fire zone, spectators crowded the roof of the 2 month old Belvedere Hotel where telegraphers moved into the upper floors in order to maintain communication with the outside world.
The fire roared on toward Sunday evening. Fire fighters were ordered to set new fires at the edges of the fire zone to create a fire break. Volunteers dumped water down the sides of outlying buildings in hope of preventing further spread of the flames.
An argument broke out over the use of dynamite to create another fire break. Business owners feared that deliberately destroyed buildings would not be covered by insurance.
When demolition crews approached O'Niell's Department Store, owner Thomas O'Niell blocked their way. The building had been equipped with an exterior sprinkler system and a fire wall. Workers stopped up exterior down spouts and drains, then flooded the roof with water from the building's roof top water tank. Meanwhile, Thomas O'Niell appealed to local nuns to pray for him and implored the Blessed Mother to save his store. The demolition crew moved on.
The National Guard was called in to maintain order for fear of looters and aggressive spectators. The Naval Brigade and Signal Corps moved in to protect the nearby waterfront and wharves and to block boatloads of fascinated sightseers.
Before the fire was over, 24 additional fire departments arrived to cheers from the crowds.
Meanwhile, east of the fire zone, people prayed the fire would not cross the Jones Falls, a narrow waterway that runs into the harbor. In the residential area east of Jones Falls, people went to bed fully dressed, leaving a family member to keep watch.
As street cleaners bravely patrolled the roof of City Hall, night fell. The Great Baltimore Fire blazed on, seemingly unstoppable, emitting a glow that could be seen up to 100 miles away.
Video shows the spread of the fire
A City in Ruins
Great Baltimore Fire - Monday, Feb. 8, 1904
Shortly after midnight, the fire moved toward Pratt Street and the waterfront, an area lined with warehouses, piers, wharves, and lumberyards. Boats moved away from the shore front and a great confusion of moving tugboats, barges, schooners, and steamers congested the harbor basin in what is now called the Inner Harbor.
At about 3:00 AM on Monday, February 8 the fire crossed Charles Street but was halted at 5:00 AM. Unfortunately, the fire pushed along Pratt Street where burning warehouses and lumberyards emitted huge clouds of smoke. The fireboat Cataract spewed water drawn from the harbor but high winds dispersed the output from its 4 water guns into a thin, icy mist.
With the destruction of Baltimore's financial district and the waterfront ablaze, fire fighters prepared to defend East Baltimore against the onslaught. As the wind began to blow from the north and northeast, fear that the fire would cross the Jones Falls threw the area into panic. Packing houses, lumberyards, Little Italy, and crowded residential neighborhoods lay just east of the fire.
Residents piled the sidewalks with their possessions while teamsters sped through the streets with horses and wagons. Streets became clogged with people and their wheelbarrows and handcarts packed with goods.
Early Monday morning, frightened parishioners packed into St. Leo's church to pray to Saint Anthony.
Flying embers jumped Jones Falls to start several small fires east of the Falls. Lumber stacked on Savanah Pier burst into flames as fire boats and tug boats fought the blaze.
As Baltimore prayed in terror, imploring God to save their homes, the wind shifted,now blowing from the south, pushing the flames back toward the ruins of the city.
The last building to burn was an ice storage house on West Falls Road. The Baltimore Herald later declared that the Great Fire was extinguished at 2:30 PM Monday, while The Sun claimed the blaze officially under control by 5:00 PM on Monday.
Great Baltimore Fire - A City in Ruins
Great Baltimore Fire and It's Legacy
- Strangely, four months after the fire, Baltimore's young mayor, Robert M. McLane was found shot to death in his dressing room. Though some suggested an accident or homicide, the newly wed mayor was believed to have committed suicide. Mayor McLane left no note. His wife, as well as several acquaintances, claimed that McLane had been in a cheerful mood.
- By 1906 Baltimore had incredibly risen from the ashes to rebuild the center of the city. Widened roads and new structures created a modern urban center that many called miraculous. In September of 1906 Baltimore threw a celebration Jubilee featuring a grand parade. Fourteen hundred fire fighters proudly marched down the streets to the appreciative roar of the crowd before a backdrop of new buildings festooned with bunting.
- A recovered Goliath pranced with obvious pride and was loved and honored to the end of his days.
- Due to problems caused by mismatched fire fighting equipment, national standardization of equipment was strongly suggested and, for the most part, implemented. But a lack of standardization remains a threat. Fire equipment incompatibility was blamed, in part, for the devastating Oakland Fire Storm of 1991.
- A yearly festival held every June by St. Leo's Parish at Exeter and Stiles Street is held in memory of the fire, in thanks to St. Anthony of Padua for his response to the prayers of a desperate people.
- Today, the Great Baltimore Fire effects commuters and visitors every day. Streets, widened during the reconstruction, narrow once past the fire zone of 1904, creating bottle-necks and traffic jams.
- Thomas O'Niell left the blackened scorch marks on the side of his building, visible until it was demolished mid century for an urban renewal project. No one can really say what saved O'Niell's Department Store from the fire. Some say, that as he implored the Carmalite sisters to pray for him, the wind shifted, and the flames took another path. Others credited resourceful store employees. One fanciful tale, the one I heard as a child, has the big, red-haired Irishman kneeling on the roof of his store, before the terrible inferno, imploring the Blessed Mother to preserve O'Niell's.
- The fact remains that Thomas O'Neill left his estate to the Archdiocese of Baltimore (after the death of his wife) to build a cathedral and hospital. The beautiful Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and the Good Samaritan Hospital are today's result of that bequest.
Alex.Brown & Sons Building - Survivor of the Fire
In Auntie's simple, undecorated bedroom, a large statue stood in the corner. The statue depicted a monk wearing soft brown robes, a gentle expression on his face.
"Who is that?" I asked my Auntie, in that little bedroom so long ago.
"That's Saint Anthony." Auntie smiled. "I like to remember how he saved us."
Fire Related Deaths
Baltimore breathed a sign of relief, but the city lay in ruins, devastated by the worst disaster in Baltimore's history. Despite the flames, the incredible heat, massive explosions, the cold and confusion, few lives were lost. Several days after the fire, two men died of pneumonia brought on by exposure to the elements.
There was some controversy over fire related deaths. For years, no deaths at all were attributed directly to the fire. However, in 2003, a Johns Hopkins University student researching records and old newspaper articles found a small piece in the Feb. 17, 1904 Baltimore Sun entitled "One Life Lost in Fire."
Naval guardsmen found the charred remains of an unidentified African-American man in the harbor at the edge of the fire zone. Though the later omission of this single death was attributed to racial bias, the Afro-American Newspaper at the time did not report the loss. The omission could have stemmed from the fact that no one was reported missing.
The Great Baltimore Fire by Peter B Peterson; Maryland Historical Society; Baltimiore Maryland; 2004
"Baltimore's Great Fire;" Harper's Weekly; 2/13/1904; from the book Baltimore When She Was What She Used to Be 185- - 1930; Marion E. Warren and Mame Warren; JHU Press; Baltimore, Maryland; 1983
The Rich Heritage of Baltimore;Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.org
O'Niell's Sold the Finest Goods; Articles Baltimore Sun; 1/11/98
Marks of Blaze Remain Visible; Baltimore Sun; 2/7/2004
Mayor's Death Still Linked in Mystery;; Baltimore Sun; 2/7/2004
Oakland Hills Firestorm - The Aftermath; ebparks.org
Lives Lost - One; Baltimore City Paper; September 13, 2003
One Life Lost in Fire; Baltimore Sun; 2/17/1904