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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The Baltimore Sun prodded the government to take action against the fire department with an editorial titled, "Firemen's Riots What Can the Matter Be?" In response, city politicians disbanded the volunteers in 1858 and introduced the 153-member professional Baltimore City Fire Department, which swiftly became a model of decorum under the leadership of Chief Charles T. Holloway.

Like other rapidly growing cities nationwide, urban density created the potential for danger. Between 1870 and 1900, the demands placed upon Baltimore's firefighters multiplied along with the spread of factories, port facilities, warehouses and apartment buildings. With more people and inflammable materials concentrated in closer proximity than ever before, one mistake, explosion or change of wind threatened to spark calamity.

During the late 19th century, Baltimore's bravest faced numerous challenges. The July 1873 Clay Street blaze leveled four blocks and 113 buildings before being tamed. On Sept. 2, 1888, a far worse catastrophe claimed the lives of seven men from the No. 2 Hook and Ladder Company, who were buried by a building collapse. That year, the department responded to 602 infernos, a record figure up to that time. By 1897, the number of fires had ballooned to 1,110.

At the turn of the century, Baltimoreans brimmed with optimism as business boomed. Then on Feb. 7, 1904, a discarded cigarette ignited a cache of cotton stored in the basement of John Hurst & Co.'s warehouse, causing two massive explosions that blew the building apart and spread the flames. Within an hour after the first fire units arrived, Chief George Horton activated the entire 460-man department and telegrammed Washington, DC, for help.

The Baltimore corps fought on as high winds filled the air with burning cinders that "fell about like a snowstorm," according to the Baltimore Sun. One witness said buildings of eight to 10 stories "would suddenly break into flames from top to bottom almost in an instant." Attempts to stop the fire's progress by dynamiting structures in its path proved futile; however, a wall of men made a gallant daylong stand at Jones Falls that shielded residential neighborhoods.

The Baltimore Sun further reported that even after 50 local firefighters had been injured, the remaining men impressed onlookers by carrying on "undismayed by the danger or the hopelessness of the task." They continued the "unequal struggle" by placing ladders against the walls of burning buildings and by "taking hoses into narrow alleys surrounded by flames."

Units from the surrounding region also responded and special trains loaded with apparatus steamed into the city. In all 1,211 firemen representing 72 outside departments helped out, over half of them from Pennsylvania. New York City, Washington and Wilmington, DE, also sent regiments. (In his book Firefighting Lore, author W. Fred Conway notes that out-of-town departments were hampered because the hose threads on their engines were not compatible with Baltimore's hydrants and adapters were not available.)

Stunned crowds gathered on Federal Hill to watch the city burn while property owners dashed about in a frantic effort to rescue goods. Because the blaze broke out on a quiet Sunday morning, there was no loss of life. Before being brought under control at 5 P.M. the next day, the blaze razed over 1,500 buildings, caused about $150 million in property damage and left 140 acres of "smoking ashes and hideous debris."

Within a decade, Baltimore had bounced back. One 1914 official brochure referred to the disaster as "a staggering blow that awakened the fighting spirit, it was not a knockout." A Burnt District Commission widened streets, reduced grades and installed a $1 million high-pressure water pipeline in 1912, transforming the landscape into a modern city.

The 1904 fire stands as the nation's third-most-destructive blaze behind Chicago, IL, in 1871 and San Francisco, CA, in 1906. Since then, thankfully, the Baltimore City Fire Department has not endured any tests of similar magnitude. Even though firefighting has changed since the days when volunteers brawled in the streets and a gust of wind might burn the city down, Baltimore's firefighters perpetuate a tradition with roots in the 1700s.

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