Imagine for a moment, that a substantial part of the city you reside in or near goes up in flames. Familiar landmarks, government buildings, businesses built up over decades, hospitals, and even streets reduced to rubble and ash. This has happened often during times of war, as the citizens of Hiroshima, Dresden, Tokyo, and London learned during World War II. American cities, such as Richmond, Jacksonville, Charleston, and Atlanta burned during the Civil War. Ancient centers of power also burned in immense conflagrations, as Rome burned in 64 AD, Constantinople in 1204, and London in 1666. While war was responsible of some of these immense fires, cites were also leveled by fires which grew from accidents as simple as a dropped match or a knocked over lantern. The events of September 11, 2001 are the closest thing this country has seen to such a calamity in recent memory, but during the 19th and early 20th centuries, disasters of this magnitude occured with apalling regularity.
Cities in the United States were particularly vulnerable to fire in the years up to World War I. Devastating fires ocurred in New York in 1835, Chicago in 1871 and 1874, Boston in 1872, Seattle in 1889, Jacksonville in 1901, Baltimore in 1904, and San Francisco in 1906, as a result of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Texas City, Texas suffered a catastrophic fire as a result of a shipload of ammonium nitrate exploding in the Houston Ship Channel in 1947. None of these fires were the result of an act of war. Fire was a constant danger in the cities of 19th and early 20th century America. Early American cities were crowded, booming places, and businesses and residences alike often placed expediency ahead of safety and permanence to meet the demand for new factories, stores, and residences for their booming populations. Streets in 19th century American cities were often narrow, buildings were often quickly erected out of wood, rather than brick or stone, as was the case older and more static European cities. Compounding the danger were inadequate and poorly enforced building codes, primitive firefighting equipment, and widespread use of open flame heating and lighting equipment. All of these conditions existed in the booming port city of Baltimore on Feburary 7,1904 when someone dropped a match or cigarette in the basement of the Hurst Building, a dry goods wholesaler near the corner of German Street and Hopkins Place, where today sits the First Mariner Arena.
Baltimore in 1904
February 7,1904 was a cold and breezy Sunday in Baltimore, and the central downtown business district at the time was crowded with merchants, warehouses, financial institutions, and factories, which bordered a commerical waterfront lined with piers and warehouses. Baltimore was a booming port city, and new construction was outpacing infrastructure to support the rapidly growing city. Many streets were narrow, the result of a street layout dating back to the 1700s which became canyons surrounded by higher and higher buildings. Wood was a common building material in the interiors of most buildings, and the exterior of many buildings as well. Sprinkler Systems were a new innovation, but not very widespread. The cold dry winds common that winter dessciated straw and hay which was spread and stored in stables,lumber, and other dry goods as well, making already combustible materials downright flammable. Fire Protection at the time consisted of hydrants and steam powered horse drawn pumpers. Baltimore also had 1 fireboat, and a number of tugboats that could pump water. Like Chicago, Boston, and Seattle before, Baltimore was a tinder box waiting for a spark to set it off.
The Fire Starts
Some time around 10:50 AM on February 7,1904, a match or cigarette was accidentally dropped in the Hurst Building, and it found some combustible material, and an automatic alarm was sounded. The fire grew and soon spread to the entire structure, a 5 story building. Soon after firefighters arrived, a gasoline tank for the building's engine exploded, blowing the roof off the building, and the fire was spread to adjoining buildings. Early in the fire, Fire Chief Horton was disabled by a falling trolley wire, and District Chief Emerich took over command of the scene.
Noon Sunday: The Fire Spreads
After the gasoline explosion, the entire corner of German and Liberty was ablaze, and the stiff dry wind from the Southwest carried live embers eastward, first towards the northeast, reaching as far north as Lexington Street. At Noon, a general alarm was sounded, and a special train was dispatched from Washington, D.C. to aid the effort. Washington's hoses didn't fit the Baltimore hydrants, and the couplings were kludged with canvas in an attempt to make them work. The wind shifted to from the Northwest, and the fire spread south and east, and involved a four block wide corridor bordered by Fayette Street to the North, and Pratt Street to the South. As the afternoon wore on, the Northwest wind rose to 30 MPH.
5 PM Sunday: A Desperate Line of Defense Fails
At 5 PM Sunday, the fire was rapidly spreading East toward Charles Street, a major North-South corridor, and the heart of the Financial District. Mayor McLane then made the fateful decision to use dynamite to blow up a line of buildings along Charles, Lombard, and Baltimore Streets to create a firebreak. The strategy backfired, as some buildings were not completely brought down, and windows in surrounding buildings were broken, leaving them open to embers driven by the rising northwest wind.
Flames from the fire could be seen as far as 50 miles away as fire crews arrived from Philadelphia, and Wilmington. Fire crews were dispatched from New York, but were delayed by a train derailment north of Philadelphia. Despite the reinforcements, the firestorm continued to spread east and south. Firefighters succeeded in keeping the fire from spreading South toward the Federal Hill area, and then they concentrated on saving the docks south of Pratt Street. Despite this temporary success, the fire continued to burn a 3 to 4 block wide corridor bordered by Pratt to the South, Fayette and Baltimore Street to the North, and the Jones Falls to the east, a narrow waterway.
Monday Morning: Fire Spreads to the Docks
At 8 AM Monday Morning, the docks were lost, as the dry gale continued unabated. Firemen from New York arrived that morning and a fire line
was established along the Jones Falls, using a total of 37 engines. Finally the line held, and by 5 PM most of the major fires were out or just smoldering.
Fires continued to smolder for weeks afterwards, and 86 blocks of the business district were in ruins. 1,500 buildings were destroyed, and 2,500 businesses were damaged or destroyed. Estimates of the day put damages at between 50 and 80 million dollars. While it is difficult to translate this figure exactly into modern values, a rough estimate based on a workmans wage
s of the day would run easily to several billion dollars. Despite the huge financial loss, only 5 people, all firefighter
s, were killed, mostly as a result of pneumonia
contracted as a result of fighting the fire. Mere statistics don't do justice to the personal toll wrought by the blaze. Within months of the blaze, Mayor McLane was dead of a gunshot wound, offically ruled as a suicide
, though some think he was shot by his wife. Nobody really knows for sure. An estimated 35,000 people were thrown out of work in the dead of winter. The Baltimore Sun
, destroyed by the fire, was forced to relocate for some time afterward, and was temporarily housed and printed in the offices of the Washington Star
Despite the huge amount of destruction, the fire provided the city with an opportunity to modernize. A commission was appointed to decide the future of the burnt district. Among the things that came out of the commission's work was the widening of sections of 12 downtown streets, the core of a modern sewer system, and the rapid rebuilding of the downtown business district within a couple of years. Another lasting legacy of the great fire was the standardization of fire hydrant and hose couplings nationwide.
Among the buildings spared was the 2 story Alex Brown building at Baltimore and Howard Street, which was at one point in the hottest part of the fire. Flames lept over the short building, and destroyed taller buildings surrounding it. Also spared was the Courthouse and City Hall, which held fast while the fires raged right across Fayette Street, and the Pratt Street Power Plant (now home to the ESPN Zone). The fire still leaves its mark on the city and nation to this day, in good ways and bad.
Baltimore Sun Newspaper February 7, 2004, pp. 1a, 12a-13a, 16-17a. Includes a reprint of the February 8,1904 Sunpaper.
Special thanks to Gorgonzola for pointing out that the fire led to the standardization of fire hose couplings nationwide.