Much was lost in the great Pimlico fire of 1966

WAY BACK WHEN

July 20, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Not since the spectacular early morning fire of July 4, 1944, leveled old Oriole Park at 29th Street and Greenmount Avenue had Baltimore experienced a more emotional loss of a historic sporting venue than when the old clubhouse at Pimlico went up in flames in an eight-alarm blaze in 1966.

Ever since 1870, when the Maryland Jockey Club returned horse racing to Maryland, the Steamboat Gothic-era members' clubhouse had been host to generations of race-goers who gathered on its broad porches and in its dining rooms, club rooms and parlors to urge on such legends as Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Man o' War, Citation and Sir Barton.

The rambling wooden Victorian confection - with its cupola and weather vane that bore the colors of that year's winner of the Preakness Stakes - looked as though it had been lifted from either Natchez or Charleston and somehow dropped in Northwest Baltimore.

An estimated 12,000 spectators made their way by carriage, on foot and aboard special race trains of the Northern Central Railway, on Oct. 25, 1870, to attend the opening of the new Pimlico race course on a brilliant sun-splashed Indian summer afternoon.

"It was a glorious day for the inauguration of the races and reviving, in more than their ancient splendor, those exciting sports of the turf for which Maryland has been so noted in times past," reported The Sun.

In 1956, the clubhouse was restored to its former Victorian splendor, and the third floor, which had been closed for years, was reopened. Each room, designed to be a private dining room, was named after a Triple Crown winner. Period racing prints decorated the walls.

Also on the third floor were the President's Room, where the winning Preakness owner and his party were entertained by Maryland Jockey Club officials, and the club's archives and library, with historic racing volumes dating to 1764, the American Turf Register and other memorabilia.

The second-floor gallery was home to the National Jockeys Hall of Fame. Wallpapers from the famed Waterman collection, Georgian chandeliers and heavy Victorian-style drapes were found throughout the floor.

"Old-timers in the `sport of kings' regarded the building as a second home, the sight of which could be depended on to produce nostalgic stories," observed The Sun.

A little after 11:30 p.m. on June 17, 1966, a fire broke out in the front rooms of the clubhouse, the oldest in American racing.

By midnight, the fire had reached six alarms and an hour later went to eight.

Spectators gathered at Park Heights and Belvedere avenues to witness the rapidly expanding conflagration.

The heat was so intense that the ladders on a fire truck parked 50 feet from the blaze began smoking.

"To most spectators, there was never any doubt that the clubhouse was doomed. Firefighters from the start said there was little chance the structure could be saved," said The Sun.

By midnight, the roof began falling in as the fire raced from the front to the rear of the building. A half-hour later, a second-floor veranda crashed to the ground in a great show of flaming embers.

Iris Gordon, who was driving by the track, told reporters, "All that tradition going up in smoke."

Pimlico's new clubhouse, built in 1960 and situated about 120 feet from the old one, was spared any damage. By 1:20 a.m., fire officials declared the fire under control, but not much remained of the old clubhouse.

"This morning there was left a brick chimney in the middle of the building and the yellow and white facade standing like a charred stage set behind which lay only wet, black rubble," reported The Evening Sun.

A spectator gestured toward the wreckage and said, "This was Pimlico," not the new concrete and steel grandstand that loomed over the track.

The fire was attributed to "an electrical malfunction," said Joseph B. Kelly, retired Washington Star racing editor, who witnessed the blaze. "It was sad. A part of racing burned down that night," he said. "The old clubhouse was a way of life for racing fans."

Destroyed with the clubhouse were valuable paintings and the records of every horse that raced at Pimlico since 1870.

"You can't put a price on tradition, history and art," opined Chick Lang, then the track's racing director.

Miraculously, the weather vane and its iron jockey attached to the chimney remained standing throughout most of the fire until finally falling and disappearing into the debris.

Hours later, firefighters found the weather vane in a pile of rubble. The blue and white colors of Kauai King, winner of the 1966 Preakness, and the horse's number, 3, were charred black. The head of the jockey was missing.

"All the lights were on it and the smoke all around it reminded me of Old Glory. All that rubble and Kauai King was still on top," said Lang.

The weather vane, the only survivor of the fire, sits today in the infield mounted atop a replica Victorian cupola.

Moments after the Preakness each May, in keeping with the tradition that dates to the 1870s, it is painted with the colors of the winning owner.

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