Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Great Baltimore Fire of 1904

My Aunt Katherine's great grandfather, Aloysius Walter, moved his family to Baltimore just before the turn of the twentieth century. Some members of the family worked at the Marsh Market selling produce and others worked in the cigar factories. On 7 February 1904 their lives were disrupted by disaster, which occurred mere blocks away from their rented home.

"Sunday morning, 7 February 1904, was a very cold day in Baltimore. February is always the most wintery month, and this was a typical February day. The skies were clear, but a biting northwest wind was blowing across the city. Uptown those so inclined were on their way to their churches. The downtown districts, as was natural on Sunday morning, were deserted by all but watchmen and an occasional policeman sheltering himself from the icy blast in a doorway on the windward side of the street.

Archibald McAllister, a private watchman employed by a number of big wholesalers to keep an eye on their warehouses, was passing the corner of German Street and Hopkins Place when he saw a puff of smoke emerge from a grating in the sidewalk before the stuffed warehouse of John E. Hurst and Company, one of the major establishments in the Southern trade. He immediately sounded a fire alarm. Another alarm had already been sounded from the automatic system in the building. Firemen were on the scene in a few minutes and prepared to fight what they thought was an ordinary basement fire.

Extra edition of The Sun published in the aftermath of the fire; image
courtesy of The Baltimore Sun

But this was not an ordinary fire. Already it had gained headway among the inflammable dry goods piled up in the building in preparation for the spring visit of the Southern buyers. The gases engendered had to find an outlet. They got it by blowing out the front wall of the building in the very faces of the leisurely firemen. Thus they were made to realize they had something major on their hands and called out more equipment. Before this could be put into action the fire had complete possession of the Hurst building and had begun to spread. Frantically the fireman sounded still more alarms.

They had no chance of controlling it. Even after special trains had brought apparatus from Washington, then Wilmington and then Philadelphia and New York -- and, of course, from York and Hanover in Pennsylvania -- the flames roared on, paying no attention to the then streams of water from the innumerable hoses which the fireman hooked to the hydrants. Every new hose meant a lessening of the water pressure, never high enough to make an effective weapon against a first-class fire. The flames, whipped by the winds, leapt clear over the buildings upon which the firemen were concentrating their efforts and often hemmed them in so that they were forced to flee for their lives, leaving their equipment behind.

Some said that the fire could be stopped by dynamite, and experts were brought in to try this method. Building after building toppled before this roaring assault, but the flames leapt across the gaps created and started afresh on the leeward side.

Not many Baltimoreans slept that night. From Federal Hill, where thousands gathered, the whole extent of the lurid panorama was visible. The warehouses, from that height, would be intact one minute and the next great torches, sending roaring flames hundreds of feet in the air. Large sections of wooden roof or cornice, caught in the upward blast, would fall perhaps a quarter of a mile away and start a new blaze where they landed.

In the threatened streets employers directed clerks in the frantic effort to save records and other valuables before the fire came upon them. In some instances they were in time, but because it was Sunday sufficient volunteers were not immediately available. Oftener than not the would-be salvagers arrived too late to get at the threatened building.

Great Baltimore Fire from across the river; source unknown

On a front almost half a mile wide the flames rushed eastward. New tall buildings with steel frames and brick curtain walls were no less vulnerable than the old solid brick structures whose fronts, in imitation of that of The Sun's famous iron building, had been plated with cast-iron columns.

Scene during the fire; image courtesy of Wikipedia

The new courthouse, of Beaver Dam marble, stood as a bulwark on the left flank of the advance and though it crumbled a bit, still it saved the post office and the City Hall. Here and there, scattered through the district, there were low and solidly built banking houses. Over these, in a few instances, the flames leapt impatiently. The little building of Alexander Brown & Sons was one of those which escaped, because it was small and compact and because its roof could withstand the rain of blazing debris. But everything else went.

The aftermath; image courtesy of the Library of Congress

By Monday evening the destroying enemy reached the Falls. The wind had died down, and, save for a few dying thrusts at the lumberyards across the stream, he made no further conquests. From Liberty Street east to the Falls and from the basin north to Lexington Street little was left save the segment protected by the courthouse. Every major wholesale warehouse, every major downtown hotel, most of the banks, all the newspapers save one small one, and all save one or two office buildings had gone down. The official count said that 1,343 buildings had been burned in the area of 139.9 acres. The damage could hardly be estimated. The accepted figure is $150 million...Baltimore had never suffered a calamity like this before."[1]

Map of the area of Baltimore that burned in the 1904 fire; image courtesy
of The Sun

[1]The description of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 is from Hamilton Owen's 1941 book, Baltimore on the Chesapeake.

No comments:

Post a Comment