100 years on, Great Fire ignites family interest

Bus tour follows path of destruction of Baltimore blaze

February 07, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff

Joanne, Hurst and John Hessey were aware that the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 had started in their great-great-grandfather's dry goods business, but they knew little else about the blaze that destroyed nearly all of downtown over two days.

But after attending a tour and lecture on the historic fire sponsored yesterday by the Fire Museum of Maryland, they were more enlightened about the fire -- and less embarrassed about their family's role in it.

Among other things, the three siblings learned that the fire was probably started by a passer-by who flicked a cigar or cigarette through a hole in a sidewalk grate used for underground loading, and not by negligence of an employee of John E. Hurst & Co.

"At first, you feel, 'Don't tell anybody you're related because it started there,' " Joanne Hessey, a 49-year-old financial analyst, said of the fire. "Then you hear it was a cigarette butt, and you're relieved.

"I used to feel a little guilty," she said. "Now, I don't have to feel that way anymore."

The Hesseys were among a bus load of about 50 people who paid $25 each to take a tour of the route of the fire; the tour was sandwiched between talks by local historian and teacher Wayne Schaumburg and Harold A. Williams, retired editor of The Sunday Sun and author of "Baltimore Afire," a book first published in 1954.

Yesterday was the second consecutive year that the Fire Museum in Lutherville has sponsored the tour, and officials say demand is strong enough that they will probably add a second tour next year.

The tours by the Fire Museum, which houses two pieces of equipment used to fight the 1904 fire and has a corner display devoted to it, pick up the torch from the Baltimore City Life Museums, which sponsored similar tours for several years but closed three years ago.

A piece of history

"I said, 'Why should the tours die? This is a great piece of Baltimore history,'" said Ellie Elgin, the Fire Museum's education coordinator who previously worked at City Life Museums.

Schaumburg, a city school teacher for 32 years, said the fire ranks with the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814 and the birth of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1827 as the city's best-known historical events.

Fanned by shifting winds up to 30 mph, aided by streets so narrow that flames could easily leap across them, the fire cut a wide swath from Liberty Street on the west to the Jones Falls on the east, from Fayette Street on the north to the harbor on the south.

"The statistics boggle the mind," Schaumburg told the group during a slide show presentation of vintage photographs from before and after the fire, which raged through Feb. 7-8 in subzero temperatures. Among the figures: 140 acres of land burned, 1,526 buildings destroyed, 2,500 companies put out of business and $100 million in damage.

"Finally, the most amazing statistic: No one died," he said.

The reason for the latter: The fire began on a Sunday morning, when the downtown district was all but deserted.

"Can you imagine this fire during the week and what a disaster it might have been?" he asked.

The downtown tour began at the site of the John E. Hurst & Co. building, now site of the Baltimore Arena, where the first alarm was sounded at 10:48 a.m. Feb. 7. It concluded at the old Fishmarket, now Port Discovery Children's Museum, where a plaque hangs commemorating the fire, brought under control by about 5 p.m. Monday.

Among the stops: the old Alex. Brown & Sons headquarters at Calvert and East Baltimore streets, now a Chevy Chase Bank branch, spared by an updraft so strong it sucked the flames over the top of the two-story building.

A range of interests

The tour drew a mix of people, from the curious to those with a serious interest in history and firefighting.

When Hurst Hessey saw a flier on the event, he got his brother and sister to come along to learn some details about what is a footnote to their family's history.

"I did not even know where the John E. Hurst building was," confessed Hurst Hessey, 45. Hessey bears the name of his maternal great-great-grandfather, and his law practice is in the area destroyed by the fire.

Indeed, so little had the fire been discussed that Joanne Hurst had to call her mother on her cell phone when asked what had become of the company. The answer: It reopened but was sold by the family during the Depression.

The Hesseys, who live in the Baltimore area, were not the only ones with family connections to the fire. Charles Kloch had heard sporadic stories from his grandmother, who was 15 at the time and fled the fire from a family-owned tavern on Liberty Street.

"This kind of pulled everything together," said Kloch, 59, a real estate leasing agent.

Some, like Baltimore firefighter Chuck Morris, were taking the tour for a second time.

Morris, 31, said he was most fascinated by the advances in communications and technology in the 96 years since the Great Baltimore Fire, but acknowledged that few of his peers seemed interested in the event.

"A lot of young guys don't have a sense of history," he said.

The Rev. Greg Zajac traveled from upstate New York, where he is pastor of a Lutheran church.

"I had a grandfather involved in elevator construction after the fire did its damage," Zajac, 45, who grew up in Baltimore, said in explaining his interest.

Asked what struck him as most interesting about the fire, he said: "I didn't know that this happened without loss of life. I find that incredible. Maybe most people were in church."

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