'Great fire' of 1904 took several lives

Guardsmen, firefighters and other residents ended up dying from exposure in the chilly aftermath of the destructive blaze

  • Baltimore City fire 1904
Baltimore City fire 1904 (Baltimore Sun )
February 04, 2011|Jacques Kelly

On a couple of long walks this week, I encountered some classic Baltimore Fire weather. This is a condition with rapid changes of wind and falling mercury. Heavy winds fanned the fire of Feb. 7 and 8, 1904, then a cold snap descended and added to the human misery.

Those volatile February winds overwhelmed the city's ability to deal with the fire. The blaze jumped from downtown building to building, fanned by those changeable gusts. It was only through the assistance of many other fire companies, including those in New York, Washington and Philadelphia, that the flames were held in check at the Jones Falls.

I stood at the corner of Park and Lexington a few days ago and looked at the vacant land where the old Castleberg's store stood. At the time of the fire, it was called J.W. Putts "Glass Palace" store, a fancy-wares emporium that offered china and other household items. The store exploded and shot glass everywhere.

For years, the history books stated that the fire claimed no lives. Not so. Two Maryland National Guardsmen, part of 1,879 who patrolled the streets and waterfront, bravely stood sentry to prevent looting after the firefighters went home and died of pneumonia. Their thin uniforms were no match for a prolonged siege of arctic air that settled over the city.

Almost as soon as the ashes of downtown Baltimore began to cool, the weather turned cold, windy and deadly. The Guard remained on duty until Feb. 23. Some of the coldest weather was Feb. 15-18.

The first Guardsman to die from exposure and pneumonia was a 17-year-old South Baltimore private named John Unduch, who succumbed Feb. 20 at his parents' home at 123 Roseland Ave.

Lt. John V. Richardson, 31, died Feb. 22 at his parents' home, 341 E. North Ave.

Both were buried with full military honors. The Baltimore Sun reported that Richardson, who had a real estate business on St. Paul Street, was laid to rest at Loudon Park Cemetery as taps sounded and a squad of eight fired three gun volleys.

Many of Unduch's family and friends attended a requiem Mass at Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church on West Street in South Baltimore. His casket was then placed on a streetcar and transported to the Long Bridge at the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. It was carried from there by horse-drawn omnibus to Holy Cross Cemetery on what is now Ritchie Highway.

He was also buried with gun volleys and taps. In civilian life, Unduch had been a marble yard worker at the Hilgartner Co.

There were other fire-related deaths. A carpenter named William Fairfax was helping demolish the charred ruins of the old Strauss Eiseman factory at 114 W. Lombard St. on Feb. 27, 1904. A work gang recruited in the Hampden neighborhood helped a contractor pull down the seven-story building's remains. A call went out to get out of the way of falling debris. Fairfax ran, but tripped over a piece of pipe. They found him dead, buried "under an avalanche of brick and mortar," The Sun reported.

One of the New York firefighters, Mark Kelly, died of pneumonia after returning home. Others suffered heart attacks and other ailments. There were reports that a homeless person was found in the ruins as well.

The other casualty was the Bavarian-born George Brehm, a prosperous brewer.

On the night of Feb. 7, he stayed up on the porch of his home at Sinclair and Loneys lanes in East Baltimore. Every so often, he'd knock an ember off the roof of his home or the brewery alongside it.

He, too, caught a bad chill and lingered in bed for some days. Before long, he lay in a coffin before the high marble altar of the old St. James the Less Roman Catholic Church at Aisquith and Eager streets, as the Latin words "Dies Irae" ("O day of wrath") were intoned at his funeral.


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