By Janet Stidman Eveleth
Photos Courtesy of the Baltimore Fire Museum
On a cold blustery day in February 1904, a frightened 13-year-old boy stood at the top of Federal Hill and watched his city burn to the ground. “All I could see was smoke and flames. Building after building crumbled to the ground,” recalled Joseph Scales, sharing memories of this tragedy with his granddaughter. My grandfather never forgot the darkest day in Baltimore’s history, the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, but he did witness the rebirth of a city as a new, modernized Baltimore emerging from the ashes.
On February 7, 1904, Engine Company 15 and Water Tower 1 responded to a second alarm for what they thought was a small, smothering fire in the basement of the Hearst Building, a dry goods store on Liberty Street and German (later renamed Redwood) Street. Minutes later, the firemen were blown out of the building when a sudden backdraft occurred, ignited when a gust of oxygen rushed in through the door they smashed open. The entire building was consumed by flames, which triggered ignition of seven surrounding buildings and the third worst fire in the U S. history. For 30 hours, more than 1,200 firemen from 72 fire companies from as far away as New York and Philadelphia had fought the flames before gaining control over the fire.
In the wake of the inferno, 86 blocks of the city’s business and financial district were destroyed. Over 1500 buildings became smoldering, crumbled ruins. More than 2500 businesses were devastated and 35,000 people were put out work. Losses exceeded $150 million, yet only two lives were lost and no individual homes were destroyed.
Even though their buildings were left in ruin, The Baltimore Sun, The Baltimore American, and the Baltimore Herald kept residents informed about the fire. Their editors still put out papers on the morning of Feb. 8th by taking trains to Washington, D.C. and printing their papers using presses loaned by Washington newspaper companies. They decided that it was important to publish to let people know that Baltimore was not dead and that its citizens would rebuild.
Mayor Robert McLane, faced with the daunting challenge of rebuilding the 140 acres lost in the fire, organized a planning committee and created the Burnt District Commission to oversee the city’s reconstruction efforts within weeks of the fire. McLean struggled to bring the many competing business interests together and started Baltimore on the path to reconstruction, but did not live to see it. The stress and opposition from his political opponents led to him to take his own life, two weeks after he secretly married his fiancée. Reconstruction of the city was accomplished by its citizens through local funding. President Theodore Roosevelt offered federal aid but the business and civic communities refused it, saying they would do it themselves.
In the next 24 months, a new Baltimore was born with over 900 new buildings. The renaissance of the city laid the foundation for today’s infrastructure, including new fire codes, wider streets, a new dock system, the beginning of a new sewer system, underground electric and telephone wires, and a new high pressure hydrant system. Two new downtown firehouses were installed where none had previously existed. It also set the stage for federal legislation to get all hose couplings and hydrants standardized to avoid problems firemen had trying to hook up during the fire.
In just two years, a modern metropolis ascended from the rubble, laying the foundation for today’s Charm City. Baltimore celebrated with the Jubilee Parade, inviting all the firemen and companies back to parade through the streets of Baltimore, cheered on by residents joyous over the recovery efforts.
Sidebar: On February 10th, in celebration of the Great Baltimore Fire’s 109th anniversary, the Fire Museum of Maryland will host a 1904 Motor Coach Tour showcasing a slide-show and tour through the area where 86 downtown blocks and 1,500 buildings were destroyed, 1 PM – 4:15 PM. On an ongoing basis, the Museum offers the Great Fire Exhibit plus a video on the way Baltimoreans responded to the worst fire disaster in the City’s history. For details contact Rob Williams, Tuesday through Friday, at 410-321-7500, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ms. Eveleth is a freelance writer in Towson, Maryland and a volunteer at the Fire Museum of Maryland