Baltimore's Fire History

Marc Ferris recounts two centuries of major blazes, including the “Great Fire of 1904.”


Baltimore, MD, boasts a colorful fire history. In fact, the Baltimore Convention Center sits just two blocks south of "ground zero" of the devastating "Great Fire of 1904," a blaze that gutted the entire downtown. Maryland was founded as a religious refuge in 1634 by George Calvert and his...


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Baltimore, MD, boasts a colorful fire history. In fact, the Baltimore Convention Center sits just two blocks south of "ground zero" of the devastating "Great Fire of 1904," a blaze that gutted the entire downtown.

Maryland was founded as a religious refuge in 1634 by George Calvert and his son, Cecil. Baltimore's origins trace to a modest agricultural settlement on the North West Branch of the Patapsco River off Chesapeake Bay. After incorporating in 1729, the municipality passed its first fire ordinance in 1747, fining homeowners for failing to buy ladders or letting chimneys "blaze out at the top." Such laws were necessary because most buildings were made of wood, and fire often brought catastrophe in colonial times. In the mid-1700s, all able-bodied city residents assisted at fire scenes, serving as a loosely knit bucket brigade. The system, however, failed to stop Baltimore's earliest recorded blaze, which raced through a single-family dwelling and snuffed six lives in 1749.

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Photo courtesy of the Fire Museum of Maryland
District Engineer Lewin H. Burkhardt, the first chief on the scene of the "Great Fire of 1904," stands next to the remains of Engine 13 on German Street, near where the conflagration began. Manufactured by Clapp & Jones, it was the only engine lost to the fire; for years afterward, it remained an attraction in a Baltimore bar.

As traffic through the port increased during the 1760s, land and property values appreciated. To guard against loss, local business and political elites organized the volunteer Mechanical Fire Company in 1763, which purchased its first engine six years later. In 1782, a rival company, the Union, split from the Mechanical and hostility between the two organizations sometimes boiled into pitched street brawls. The Friendship company, established in 1785, chose its name in an unsuccessful bid to heal the divisions.

Urban growth in the 1800s led to the creation of several other fire companies, whose turf wars regularly turned into riots. Volunteer violence reached epic proportions by 1831, when local fire chiefs organized the Baltimore Association of Firemen to polish the firefighters' public image. The men vowed to refrain from partaking in "ardent spirits" while on duty and to cease offending members of other houses.

The committee failed to bring order, however, and mediated several quarrels over the next two decades. In 1838, for example, New Market Company members killed two of the Union Company's men, triggering more "turbulence, disgraceful conduct and personal violence," according to the association's records.

During one 1844 battle between the Vigilant and the Columbia companies, "brick bats flew like hail [and] pistols were fired in every direction." Conditions got so out of hand that a Mechanical company official wrote that "something must be done or the department will be in the hands of these rowdies completely!"

In the 1840s, Baltimore's government exercised limited power but began to assert control over the volunteers. The city council prohibited minors from loitering around firehouses, established fire wards to bring orderly responses and strictly budgeted supplies to restrict the rampant equipment stealing that further fueled disputes.

Officials also upgraded the city's small police force to quell the chaos. An 1849 scuffle between the Watchman and United companies threatened to escalate after United men Theodore Hinds and Andrew Reed suffered serious head wounds. Before the situation spiraled out of control, however, the Baltimore Sun reported that constables "were on the spot amidst the uproarious crowds that filled the street, and regardless of danger or injury promptly arrested the offending parties."

Police outlays more than doubled between 1850 and 1856, when the professional department first took to the streets. Chaos still reigned, though, and in 1855 one English visitor to the city remarked that the 15 fire companies were "jealous as Kilkenny cats of one another, and when they come together, they scarcely ever lose an opportunity of getting up a bloody fight."

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