Man's research indicates great fire did claim lives

February 07, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

All the history books state that the Great Baltimore Fire, which raged across downtown 90 years ago on Feb. 7-8, 1904, claimed no lives. Maybe a few people suffered broken bones, but there was no real loss of life.

Dean K. Yates, a 40-year-old graduate of the University of Maryland Baltimore County history program, has found evidence the contrary.

Two Maryland National Guardsmen, who bravely stood sentry to prevent looting, died of pneumonia. Their thin uniforms were no match for a prolonged siege of arctic air that settled over the city after the fire.

"The history books missed the guard casualties," Yates said one day last week while at his present job as an archivist at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

Yates made the discovery a few years ago while taking inventory of Maryland National Guard records stored at the State Archives in Annapolis. Yates, a former Army staff sergeant, recognized the previously unpublished details of the National Guard's involvement in the Baltimore Fire of 1904. After months of research, he published their account in a 115-page book called "Forged by Fire," printed by Family Line Publications in Westminster.

The fire began on a Sunday morning at the warehouse of John E. Hurst & Co. on German (now Redwood) Street at Liberty Street -- currently the site of the Baltimore Arena. Southwesterly winds fanned the flames, which jumped from building to building until a new weather front moved through that evening.

By the time the fire was under control on Monday, Feb. 8, it had leveled 140 acres, from the west side of downtown to the Jones Falls on the east.

Mayor's call

Mayor Robert McLane called out the National Guard that Sunday by climbing to the top of City Hall and personally sounding a huge resonant bronze bell there, three sets of three rings. The guard, commanded by Brig. Gen. Lawrason Riggs, kept crowds of spectators at bay and evacuated buildings that soon would become exploding infernos.

"There was a saloon near the Jones Falls where the patrons just wouldn't leave. Here was a fire with hundreds of buildings already blazing and there was one man on the roof of the bar with a bucket of water. The guardsmen had to carry people across the Jones Falls bridges to get them out of the way," Yates said.

In the days after the fire, some 1,879 guardsmen patrolled the streets and waterfront.

But almost as soon as the ashes of downtown Baltimore began to cool, the weather turned cold, windy and deadly.

"The guardsmen built picket fires where they stood to keep warm. There was little shelter in the burnt district so they used what they could. They made hovels out of tin or wood. They lacked warm clothing. The Guard had never done winter duty. They had only known summertime parades and rifle-range target competitions," Yates said.

Cold snap

Using data he obtained from the city's weather station on Howard Street, Yates found there was a particularly bad cold snap Feb. 15-18, when the wind chill index hit minus 24. The Guard remained on duty until Feb. 23.

The first guardsman to die from exposure and pneumonia was a 17-year-old South Baltimore private named John Unduch, who succumbed Feb. 20 at his parents' home at 123 Roseland Ave.

Lt. John V. Richardson, 31, died Feb. 22 at his parents' home, 341 E. North Ave.

His post had been Pratt and Light streets.

Both were buried with full military honors. The Sun reported that Richardson, who had a real estate business on St. Paul Street, was laid to rest at Loudon Park Cemetery as taps sounded and a squad of eight fired three gun volleys.

Many of Private Unduch's family and friends attended a requiem Mass at Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church on West Street in South Baltimore.

His casket was then placed on a streetcar and transported to the Long Bridge at the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. It was carried from there by horse-drawn omnibus to Holy Cross Cemetery on what is now Ritchie Highway.

He was also buried with gun volleys and taps. In civilian life, Unduch had been a marble yard worker at the Hilgartner Company.

Chilly waterfront

One of the coldest places the Guard patrolled was the waterfront. The Maryland Navy Brigade guarded the Pratt and Light Street docks in today's Inner Harbor.

"At least the navy guys had their pea coats, wool gloves and toques [knitted wool hats] that gave them a lot more protection from the winter," Yates said.

The Sun also reported two other deaths that were fire related.

A carpenter named William Fairfax was helping demolish the charred ruins of the old Strauss Eiseman factory at 114 W. Lombard St. on Feb. 27, 1904.

A work gang recruited in the Hampden neighborhood helped a contractor pull down the seven-story building's remains.

A call went out to get out of the way of falling debris.

Fairfax ran, but tripped over a piece of pipe.

They found him dead, buried "under an avalanche of brick and mortar," The Sun reported.

The other casualty was the Bavarian-born George Brehm, a prosperous brewer.

On the night of February 7, he stayed up on the porch of his home at Sinclair and Loney's lanes in Northeast Baltimore.

Occasionally he'd knock an ember off the roof of his home or the brewery alongside it.

He, too, caught a bad chill and lingered in bed for some days. Before long, he lay dead in a coffin before the high marble altar of the old St. James the Less Roman Catholic Church, Aisquith and Eager Streets, as the Latin words "Dies Irae" (O day of wrath) were intoned.

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