1953 fire swept through Canton

Way Back When

Blaze: One of the worst waterfront fires in Baltimore's history was started by a worker who was using an acetylene torch to repair an oil barge.

January 16, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The first alarm sounded in Canton at 8: 40 a.m. on Feb. 17, 1953, signaling the beginning of one of the worst waterfront fires in the city's history.

By the time it was over later that morning, the 18-alarm fire, which swept through a lumber yard, marine railway and threatened a quarter-mile long section of industrial plants along Boston Street, had entered the city's record books.

It had required 66 pieces of equipment, 354 firefighters, 45 engine companies, 15 truck companies, one hose company, four fireboats and one water tower. In addition, 32 reserve pieces were mobilized by a radio and television call to all off-duty to report for duty immediately. Coast Guard tugs and patrol boats with 200 Coast Guardsman assisted city fireboats.

The 18 alarms, sounded in multiples of six from boxes located in Canton, summoned the equipment, which was eventually spread over 16 blocks along the waterfront and three blocks inland. Thousands gathered to watch the progress of the conflagration.

Hans Marx, a Sun photographer who died earlier this week in Lewes, Del., just happened to be driving through Canton as the fire erupted.

He stopped his car, grabbed his camera and took an award-winning picture showing terrified crowds scurrying through the streets as a fireball roars through a building.

Paul Broderick, an Evening Sun editor, later wrote that it was a picture that had "overwhelming news power."

It was later determined that the fire was started by a worker using an acetylene torch to repair an oil barge in the yard of the Chesapeake Marine Railway Co. at Philpot and Point streets.

The fire, whipped by a 40-mph wind, quickly raced through the firm's building and pier.

Marvin L. Buckman, the company's office manager, instructed fellow employees to call the fire department as he hurried to the site of the blaze.

"When I got there," he told the Evening Sun, "flames were coming out of a lumber company shed and were licking out from underneath a metal barge which had been pulled up on our railway.

"Then it spread to the office, so fast that we didn't have time to save a thing. Clothes, records, tools -- everything burned up. I've never seen anything like it," he said.

The yard's 70 employees escaped without injury, even as huge hunks of burning tar paper were being ripped from the building's roof.

Four tugboats awaiting repair were pulled quickly into the harbor and, except for some blistered paint, escaped damage.

Within 40 minutes, the fire destroyed the $350,000 plant. Workers were evacuated from the nearby Continental Can Co. Plant 9 and J.S Young Co. as flames licked against the sides of the factories and smoke filled their interiors.

The Baltimore Lumber Company and 1 million board feet of lumber went up in smoke as the fire jumped across Boston Street and threatened several taverns, residences and other businesses.

A police guard was posted over the remains of the lumber yard, where a safe containing $40,000 in cash was buried under tons of debris.

The fire was finally brought under control at 11 a.m. In addition to the shipyard and lumber yard, the fire had ignited a nearby field and burned a Pennsylvania Railroad float pier.

Damage estimates would top $2 million.

Incredibly, there was no loss of life, and only seven people were injured.

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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