On a hot day, city burned Fire: Flames spread from a factory on Clay Street, ultimately destroying two churches, more than 100 houses, and several commercial buildings.

Way Back When

July 25, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

It was a 125 years ago today, on a hot July morning, that Baltimoreans began hearing and seeing horse-drawn fire wagons racing through city streets. Great clouds of dense black smoke rose over buildings west of Charles Street.

They were responding to a fire in the workrooms of Joseph Thomas & Sons, a door and sash manufacturer at Park Avenue and Clay Street, where floor boys sweeping pine shavings noticed a wisp of smoke curling up from a shavings box near the boiler room.

Stacks of lumber, varnish and glue stored in the building quickly fed the growing flames. Suddenly, the cry of "fire!" spread throughout the building. Men working on the second and third floors of the structure leaped to the sidewalk, with several being injured.

It was the beginning of the Clay Street Fire, whose wind-driven flames eventually burned for 10 hours, destroyed 113 buildings and caused an estimated $750,000 in damages. The burned area was bounded by Park Avenue, Clay, Mulberry and Saratoga streets.

In his "Chronicles of Baltimore," Thomas J. Scharf described that fire -- later eclipsed by the great Baltimore Fire of 1904 -- as being "the most extensive and destructive conflagration ever known in Baltimore."

He wrote: "Men of iron nerves shrank back from the scorching blast which met them. Women ran to and fro, wringing their hands and moaning in hysterical grief over the destruction of their homes. Men with wagons and drays were endeavoring to force their way to the scene; some were carrying articles by hand, and everything was in uproar and confusion. Just about 11 o'clock the bells of St. Alphonsus' Church began to ring, adding their clangor to the noise, and with the varied cries from the restless mass of humanity on the streets, the shrill whistles and hoarse puffing of the steamers, the shouts of the firemen and policemen, and with the deep roar of the flames, made up a babel of noise that greatly intensified the horror of the scene."

The next day's Sun reported: "The dreaded fire king, to which all American cities seem liable, has enforced another lesson -- this time in Baltimore."

The newspaper said that the fire, occurring near the heart of the city, "threatened at one time to rival the previous disasters of Chicago and Boston, destroying two churches, and over one hundred houses, including numerous small dwellings, a few factories and stores, and rendered a large number of people homeless."

While the orphanage and parish school of St. Alphonsus went up in flames, the church itself was spared by the efforts of its parishioners. They were joined by those from St. Michael's and St. James' Roman Catholic church, who rushed to the scene to help priests move vestments and strip altars. Several men worked through the day dampening down the church's roof and that of the nearby cathedral with wet blankets.

The Central Presbyterian Church at Liberty and Saratoga streets wasn't so fortunate. It's tall tower caught fire -- so far up that firefighters were unable to reach the flames with their hoses -- and within 30 minutes, the entire building was ablaze.

Elsewhere in the city people came out to fight the flames. "The colored people occupying houses in College Alley, Little Pleasant Street and other secluded places contiguous to the fire, worked with great zeal and assiduity, and they are worthy of credit for the valuable assistance that they rendered," reported The Sun.

Chief Henry Spillman pressed every available piece of equipment into service while telegraphing Wilmington and Washington: "Send every spare engine and carriage here immediately." They were rushed to Camden Station aboard a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad train, covering the 42 miles between the cities in 39 minutes.

In addition to the blaze itself, firefighters had to contend with near-riot conditions driven by panic as homeowners stacked household possessions in the streets awaiting their removal by horse-drawn drays. Looting reached an uncontrolled frenzy.

"Persons either burned out of their homes or fearful of this fate hurried here and there laden with articles they had saved," reported The Sun. "One elderly woman with gray curls, carrying a parrot in a cage in one hand and a blue china vase in the other, is said to have attracted considerable attention; even in this crowd where individuals with odd burdens were commonplace."

In a 1924 story in The Sun, Samuel Marker, who fought the fire that day, recalled, "We worked terribly hard and I remember very well that it was a terribly hot day. Of course, the fire department was very small compared to what it is now -- I believe we had only ten engines and three trucks in the whole city."

Marker attributed the containment of the fire to a large number of volunteers, who worked side-by-side with firefighters, and a "good water system."

"At that time we had a very good water system and the pressure was good. I do not remember that we had any trouble because of an insufficient water supply or because of insufficient pressure."

Miraculously, there was only one fire-related casualty. A Miss Craft, daughter of a small-store owner at Clay and Park, who was of "a delicate state of health," was "overcome with excitement and fright" as she was taken from the burning building. She died later that day.

Pub Date: 7/25/98

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