Baltimore's Great Fire created as well as destroyed

Tour on Great Fire's anniversary draws crowd

February 06, 2011|By Jay Hancock, The Baltimore Sun

One hundred seven years after Harry met Martha at the edge of hell, two people who resulted from their encounter wanted to see the spot and imagine the flames — both thermal and romantic.

On Sunday Mary Maguire and her daughter, Colleen Phebus, walked and bused across 70 downtown blocks that were annihilated in the Great Baltimore Fire in 1904.

Maguire's grandparents met during the conflagration, she said. There's a terrific family story about how Harry Gessner saved Martha Skelton from distress — it was her hat that was the problem.

"And then a year later she married him," said Maguire, who joined a fire anniversary tour along with about 40 others on a brilliant, warmish-for-February day.

Tour leader and Baltimore historian Wayne Schaumburg probably hadn't heard that particular fire story. But he recounted dozens of others as he again re-created the two winter days that wiped out Baltimore's central business district.

The tour, sponsored by the Fire Museum of Maryland and now more than a dozen years old, is accumulating almost as much history as the event it commemorates. Weather permitting, Schaumburg never seems to lack people who want to spend an afternoon tracking the blaze from its explosion near the present 1st Mariner Arena to its defeat on the Jones Falls. Even on Super Bowl Sunday.

The late Harold A. Williams, a former editor at The Baltimore Sun and author of a book on the fire, conducted the annual tour before Schaumburg took over a few years ago. The Fire Museum began offering the walk after the demise of previous sponsor, the Baltimore City Life Museums.

Jeff Shaney of Towson bought a ticket for his mom, Toni Shaney, as a Christmas present. He had had "a blast" several years back on Schaumburg's tour of Baltimore's historic Green Mount Cemetery and wanted to try the fire walk.

Harold Berdiansky and friend Susan Sabre came from Raleigh, N.C., to research his historic novel, set during the fire and involving a Jewish immigrant family and an anarchist trying to assassinate President Theodore Roosevelt.

In the book the anarchist is suspected of starting the fire — and no wonder, since he was spotted near John Hurst & Co., the dry goods store where it broke out on Sunday morning, Feb. 7.

The real cause was a discarded cigar, perhaps. Thanks to an economic recession, Hurst's was jammed with inventory that ignited and blew the roof off, spreading flames to buildings nearby.

Authorities soon called in help from Washington and then Philadelphia and Wilmington. But visiting firefighters arrived too late or with useless equipment. Out-of-town companies found their hoses didn't fit Baltimore hydrants or hoses, a problem that led to the adoption of uniform national standards.

It got so hot that policemen's celluloid collars melted on their necks, prompting an order for their removal, Schaumburg said. The wind kept changing, thwarting attempts to anticipate the fire's next move or set firebreaks. An attempt to create a fire-free corridor by dynamiting buildings in the blaze's path succeeded only in blowing out windows and giving the fire entrée to fresh fuel.

Where the former Legg Mason building now stands on Light Street was a hardware store with 40 cases of dynamite in the basement. Firemen did save that structure, but only by dousing it with water that encased it in ice as a cold snap hit Sunday night.

There were other victories and blessings. The owner of O'Neill's department store saved the building by stuffing downspouts with inventory from the linen department and unplugging a rooftop water tank, which saved it from catching flame, Schaumburg said. Buildings with newfangled steel beams were less likely to collapse.

While the fire obliterated the harbor docks, it stopped its northward march at Charles and Lexington streets. That's why today Charles changes from four lanes to two at Lexington, Schaumburg said. The city widened it after the fire, but only up to the edge of the devastation.

Somehow flames spared the headquarters of investment bank Alex. Brown & Sons at the corner of Calvert and Baltimore streets, skipping over the top and leaving a magnificent art nouveau ceiling of glass as well as the building intact.

Well, almost intact.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you are standing in the only place in Baltimore where you can put your hands on real, 1904 fire damage," says Schaumburg, a former Baltimore history teacher.

Stonework fractured by the fire can be seen on the exterior of the structure, today a Capital One bank branch.

After two days the fire had incinerated 140 acres and 1,500 buildings and thrown tens of thousands of Baltimoreans out of work.

But it created as much as it destroyed, setting the footprint for the modern downtown and becoming "a landmark not of decline but of progress," as Mayor Robert McLane hopefully told one of the local papers a few days after it died down.

It also summoned spectators, including Harry Gessner and Martha Skelton, who lived within a block of each other near North Avenue but had never met. As family lore has it, a floating spark ignited the plume in Martha's hat. Harry extinguished it. They talked.

Five score and seven years later, their descendents stood near the spot on Baltimore Street and tried to imagine the scene. Soon there will be another descendent to tell the tale.

"I'm hopefully going to tell this story to my great-grandchild," Mary Maguire says, "who will be born in June."

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