1904: Conflagration Strikes Baltimore

Photo by Christopher W. Harrington
The Hurst Building exploding 17 minutes after the first alarm sounded.

On the quiet Sunday morning of Feb. 7, 1904, an automatic alarm at Box 854 was received from the John E. Hurst Building on German Street, between Hopkins Place and Liberty Street in Baltimore. Engine Company 15, Truck Company 2, the Salvage Corps and District Engineer 5 answered the alarm at 10:48 A.M. In just a few minutes, the fire exploded into what would be the almost total destruction of downtown Baltimore.

Within 17 minutes, more than a dozen buildings were ablaze. The Baltimore Fire Department responded with more than 23 steam fire engines and eight hook-and-ladder trucks, leaving Engine 25, Hook and Ladders 7, 8 and 9 (combination trucks) and three chemical engines, which responded to a multitude of alarms turned in for fires started by flying brands.

Photo by Christopher W. Harrington
Companies operating on Baltimore Street on Sunday afternoon. Photo shows overhead wires as they appeared all over downtown, hampering operations.

Within 30 minutes, the fire was rapidly spreading beyond the limits of the fire department, driven by winds out of the southwest. Washington, DC was quickly summoned for assistance, and its Engines 3 and 6 arrived in Baltimore at 1:31 P.M. Mutual aid companies from nearby communities also arrived in the afternoon. At around 10 P.M., units from Annapolis and Philadelphia (four engine companies) arrived to join the fight.

At approximately 8 P.M., the wind changed, now blowing out of the west and starting to drive the fire due east. That was followed by a cold front that arrived around midnight with winds out of the northwest, from which direction they remained for the duration of the fire.

All through the morning hours of Feb. 8, extra mutual aid units from Washington and Philadelphia were joined by units from Wilmington, DE, the Pennsylvania cities of Altoona, Chester, Harrisburg and York, and the Pennsylvania Railroad Fire Department. The Fire Department of New York arrived at 11:10 A.M. with two engines and a truck and at 1:30 P.M. with seven more engines. Other cities, including Phoenixville, PA, and Atlantic City, NJ, soon arrived with manpower.

Photo by Christopher W. Harrington
Fire department operations on Sunday on German (now Redwood) Street.

The end result was a mustering of 57 steam fire engines, nine hook and ladders, one fireboat and six hose reels. The final stop of the fire was made along its southeast boundary at the Jones Falls. A total of 37 steam fire engines were reported to have been drafting from the falls to accomplish the task. However, before this task was completed, the fire had consumed about 140 acres and 86 blocks of downtown Baltimore. This area contained 1,526 buildings, ranging in size from one to 16 stories.

Many lessons were learned from this fire, the greatest of which were the requirement for standard-size hose couplings and the overconfidence of masonry buildings to withstand a fire.

Photo by Christopher W. Harrington
A view of the devastation. Visible on the right is the dome of City Hall, which survived the fire.

Photo by Christopher W. Harrington
Photo shows the remains near the Inner Harbor looking north from Pratt Street.

Gary E. Frederick will present “A Historic Perspective: the 1904 Baltimore Fire” at Firehouse Expo 2004 in Baltimore, July 13-18.

Gary E. Frederick retired as assistant chief of the Baltimore City Fire Department after 37 years of service, and now serves as safety officer for the Gettysburg, PA, Fire Department.