Baltimore's Fire History

July 1, 1996
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 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.

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."

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.

Fire Museums Beckon Baltimore Visitors

The Baltimore, MD, area is home to two noteworthy fire museums. The Fire Museum of the Baltimore Equitable Society, at 21 North Eutaw St., is a 10-minute walk from the Inner Harbor. Featuring artifacts from the city's rough-and-tumble 19th century, the museum is open Monday through Friday, 9 A.M.-4 P.M. (telephone 410-727-1794).

The Fire Museum of Maryland, housing a more comprehensive collection of apparatus, is at 1301 York Road in Lutherville, MD, about 20 minutes by car from the Baltimore Convention Center. Hours are Monday through Saturday 11 A.M.-4 P.M. and Sunday 1-5 P.M. (410-321-7500). On July 27 from 5:30 to 8:30 P.M., the museum will host "Baltimore County Night," sponsored by three local fire organizations. Free shuttle buses will run to and from the convention center and light refreshments will be served.

Marc Ferris is a writer and historian with an interest in the fire service. He was project editor for the book Encyclopedia Of New York.

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