Trial by fire nothing new for town of Mount Airy

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

September 15, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

The three-alarm fire that destroyed much of downtown Mount Airy this month isn't the first to sweep through the historic Carroll County community.

Three devastating fires -- in 1903, 1914 and 1925 -- wrecked the town that was founded in 1830 alongside the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's mainline, which crosses Parr's Ridge.

On Feb. 26, 1903, a headline on The Sun's front page told of a "Large Fire at Mount Airy" that destroyed more than a dozen stores and frame dwellings, with a loss of "upward of $75,000."

The B&O raced a special train to Mount Airy with Frederick firefighters and brought in five heavy freight locomotives, whose tenders each contained 7,000 gallons of much-needed water to fight the fire.

So quickly was the water used that the locomotives made five trips each to a water tank about four miles from Mount Airy to replenish their tenders and then race back to the scene.

"The town is absolutely without fire protection or even an adequate water supply. All that could be done was remove what personal effects and merchandise it was possible to save," said The Sun.

"Everybody turned out in full number to do this and rendered much valuable aid, but the bucket brigade proved wholly inefficient to combat such a fire," the newspaper reported.

Eight hours after it had begun, the fire that destroyed 15 buildings and two hotels was finally extinguished at 10:30 a.m.

On March 25, 1914, a stiff southwest breeze fanned a fire that apparently started in the boiler room of Farmers' Milling and Grain Co. in downtown Mount Airy shortly before noon.

When the fire was over three hours later, two mills, a bank, several stores and the B&O station lay in ruins. Damage costs were estimated at $86,000.

At its height, the fire threatened to spread to the town's residential neighborhoods.

Once again, town officials turned to Frederick for help.

"Complaint was made by some of them that `red tape' in regard to taking the [fire] apparatus out of the city considerably delayed response," reported The Sun.

While the fire was raging, Town Council members who opposed a bond issue to raise funds to build a waterworks were in Annapolis.

"That fire made more converts in the one hour and a half in which it burned than has been made by the Board of Trade and the Civic League who have conducted their campaign," reported the newspaper.

On June 4, 1925, a fire broke out in the Frank B. Zepp Dry Good Store and quickly spread through the town.

The B&O dispatched several locomotives with fully laden tenders, while fire companies from Frederick, Rockville, Kensington and Ellicott City raced to the scene. But they were "unable to check the fire because of lack of water," reported The Sun.

Thousands watched the blaze that wiped out "one-fourth of the village," and damage estimates were put at $200,000, reported the newspaper.

With its business section having been razed by fire for the third time in 22 years, interest was again revived in the installation of a water system.

What did come out of the 1925 fire was a call for the establishment of a permanent volunteer fire company.

The next year, the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Co. purchased an American LaFrance pumper for $8,325, which remained on the job until being retired in 1958.

Surprisingly, no lives were lost in those early fires, despite their ferocity.

A 1961 fire in the Mount Airy Furniture and Appliance Co. that once again threatened the business district was extinguished in 45 minutes by seven fire companies.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Find previous columns at baltimoresun.com/backstory.

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