Centennial of 1904 blaze inspires regional tribute

History: Several local institutions are preparing to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the historic fire.

November 10, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

It's hard to say just when a smoldering fire one bleak February day reached the dramatic proportions that made it the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904.

Perhaps, it was when buildings were dynamited in a vain effort to halt its march.

Or when pleas for help reached New York.

Or when people 50 miles away could see a curtain of flames in the night sky.

By the time the fire was brought under control after 30 hours, its immensity was clear: 140 city blocks and more than 1,500 buildings lay in ruins, with more than $125 million in damage done - an estimated $2.5 billion today. No less amazing was the speed of the city's rebuilding and the modernizing of downtown that followed, visible in quickly widened streets.

The fire's most far-reaching legacy, though, may be the creation of a national standard for fire-hose couplings. Mundane as it sounds, the change was major and stemmed from the inability of out-of-town firefighters to hook up their hoses to Baltimore's hydrants as the conflagration raged.

With the fire's 100th anniversary about three months away, a yearlong commemoration is being readied by area museums. The slate of events will include bus and foot tours of the "burnt district," exhibits, lectures, church services, demonstrations of vintage fire apparatus and at least one parade.

"This is a major commemoration for the entire city," said Jeannine Disviscour, curator of the Maryland Historical Society, whose "Baltimore Ablaze" exhibit opens on the Feb. 7 anniversary. "We want to get everybody in the city involved in this. We want them to see the relevance of it."

The fire saga has enough drama to satisfy Hollywood. There were the crazily changing winds, a fortuitous dash by Goliath the horse, a heroic last stand by firemen lining the Jones Falls - and department store owner Thomas O'Neill's reputed prayer for divine intervention.

There is even a new story line. Though it was long accepted that no one died in the fire, Disviscour now believes an amateur historian has documented that one man, an African-American, did perish.

As major urban fires of the era went, Baltimore's was far from the worst. In 1871, Chicago's Great Fire killed about 300, left 90,000 homeless and caused property losses of $200 million, according to the Chicago Public Library. In 1906, says the Museum of the City of San Francisco, that city's earthquake and fire killed more than 3,000 and caused damage of $500 million.

But for Baltimore, the 1904 blaze was - and still is - the most sweeping catastrophe in city history. That is why the historical society's exhibit will run nine months, through October. It will feature dozens of photos, oral histories and film footage taken by associates of Thomas Edison.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library will kick things off this fall by posting on its Web site the Burnt District Commission Report, which guided the rebuilding, and an interactive display of the fire's path.

The Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville will sponsor bus tours of the "burnt district" - roughly from Liberty Street on the west to the Jones Falls on the east, and from Fayette Street on the north to the waterfront on the south - on Feb. 1 and Feb. 8. Its "Great Fire of Baltimore" exhibit will open May 1 with a photo timeline and period fire apparatus.

On June 12, the fire museum - which is raising money for its displays - will stage a free festival with a parade and exhibition of horse-drawn firetrucks.

The museum and historical society will hold lectures during the year, and the society will lead monthly walking tours from April to September. The Baltimore City Heritage Area is coordinating a list of all fire-related events.

The Baltimore City Fire Museum at Old Town Mall, open by appointment, will be involved as well. Visitors will be able to peruse its case of artifacts, such as a yellowed newspaper from Feb. 8, a steam gauge from a crushed pumper, a melted revolver and a dynamite box used to blow up buildings.

The fire started when a cigar or cigarette landed in the basement of the John E. Hurst & Co. dry goods building. The building stood near Liberty and Redwood (then called German) streets, not far from the present site of 1st Mariner Arena.

An alarm sounded at 10:45 a.m. and five minutes later, with firefighters inside, a huge explosion blew off the roof and broke out the windows. No firefighters were hurt, but flames leapt out windows and embers took flight on gusts of wind. The fire was on.

Goliath, a fire horse, may have been the fire's first hero, albeit an unwitting one. When an ember singed the animal's coat, it bolted, pulling a precious steam pumper out of the way of a falling wall.

Early on, the fire was a source of public entertainment. Spectators crowded around, some holding up children for a better view. But by day's end, the crowds had fled. In Baltimore Afire, published in 1954, Harold A. Williams writes that the roaring fire sounded "like wind howling on a mountaintop."

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