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1904 - February 7 – The Great Baltimore Fire in Baltimore, Maryland destroys over 1,500 buildings in 30 hours.

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THE STORY OF THE BURNING OF BALTIMORE

All the world was startled on Sunday, February 7, 1904, just 39 days after the Iroquois theater horror, by another sickening visitation of the fire fiend. This time the devouring element fell upon the city of Baltimore and all but effaced it from the map. Millions upon millions in property were swept away, old established firms annihilated and miles of streets occupied by business houses laid waste. Fortunately this disaster was accompanied by no loss of life.

Twenty-seven hours elapsed before the conflagration was checked. Fire fighters hurried to the scene from a number of near by cities and aided the local fire department in subduing the flames. Strangely enough it was a coal yard that broke the onward sweep of the sea of fire and enabled the firemen to bring the fire under control. Even then it burned for days, feeding on the debris and wreckage that marked its early progress. The greatest danger past troops and police relieved the firemen who sought rest exhausted and maddened by the terrible ordeal through which they had passed.

History affords no parallel of the conditions in fire-swept Baltimore on the following Tuesday when its people awoke to the mighty task of reconstruction looming up before them. After having suffered a loss estimated at $125,000,000 a cry of rejoicing went up among them because of the absence of casualties. Not a life was lost in the avalanche of flame and only one person was seriously injured— Jacob Inglefritz, a volunteer fireman from York, Pa. While the hospitals were full to overflowing the injuries sustained were of a minor nature. A strange comparison with the Iroquois theater fire of a month before! In that instance 600 met death and a host were seriously injured in a fire of fifteen minutes’ duration confined to one building that suffered insignificant damage. Here in a fire that swept for days over the business heart of a great city not a life was lost.

Such is the strange operation of providence.

As fire and water have ever been recognized as the most potent agencies of death and destruction it will readily appear that seared, scorched Baltimore was fortunate indeed in the absence of casualties. On the calm of a restful Sabbath, marred only by the presence of a high wind, the consuming storm broke upon the doomed city. To that wind and the presence of hundreds of old fashioned highly inflammable structures nestling among the sky scrapers may be attributed the indescribably rapid spread of the flames.

The start of the fire was in the basement of Hurst & Co.’s wholesale dry goods house. After burning for about ten minutes there was a loud report from the interior of the building as the gasoline tank used for the engine in the building exploded. Instantly the immense structure collapsed, sending destruction to adjacent buildings in all directions and causing the fire to be beyond control of the firemen.

Spreading throughout the wholesale section, the fire burned out every wholesale house of note in the city, swept along through the Baltimore and Fayette street retail sections, destroyed all the prominent office buildings, leveled banks and brokerage offices, as well as the Chamber of Commerce and Stock Exchange, in the financial section, then sped on through the wholesale and export trade sections centering about Exchange place. It finally stopped at Jones falls, a creek that runs through Baltimore, but swept along the creek to the lumber district and the docks.

As soon as the threatening character of the fire was realized appeals were sent broadcast for help and desperate measures were adopted to prevent the spread of the flames. To gain that end huge buildings were leveled through the agency of dynamite. Eleven fire engines and crews were hurried from New York by a fast special train and they joined in the battle early and fought like demons until exhausted. Philadelphia, Wilmington, Washington, Frederick, Md., Westminster, Md., and York, Pa., each sent brave contingents of men with an equipment of apparatus to reinforce the desperate firemen of Baltimore.

The first attempt at dynamiting was in the large building of Armstrong, Cator & Co., but it failed to collapse and attention was turned to the building at the southwest corner of Charles and German streets, where six charges of dynamite, each charge containing 100 pounds, were exploded. The tremendous force of the explosion tore out the massive granite columns that supported the building and left it with apparently almost no support, but the walls failed to collapse and stood until the flames had crossed Charles street and were eating into the block between Charles and Light streets.

Meantime the fire had been communicated to the row of buildings on South Charles street, between German and Lombard streets, and all those places, occupied principally by wholesale produce and grain dealers, were in flames. Before midnight the Carrollton hotel was in flames and the fire was sweeping toward Calvert street with irresistible fury.

It was a terrible Sunday afternoon and night! People forgot their usual devotions at church to pack their most valued possessions ready for flight. Men of wealth left their families and firesides to join in the work of suppressing the flames. Women prepared to flee with their valuables before the wave of fire they momentarily expected to roll down upon them. Wealth and employment were disappearing under the advance of the fiery element and gloom, fear and dark forebodings settled down upon the doomed municipality. But there was neither sleep nor rest for man, woman or child.

Firemen working on the south side had succeeded in checking the flames at Lombard street and, as the wind was blowing from the northwest, there was no danger of it spreading farther in that direction. The western limit had also been reached at Howard street and the danger was confined to the east and north.

The progress of the flames toward the north had in the meantime been so rapid as to be simply appalling. From structure to structure they flew, licking up the massive buildings as if they were composed of paper. In the block between German and Baltimore streets they flew along and almost before it could be realized the buildings along Baltimore street were blazing from roof to basement.

For a time it was hoped the fire could be kept from crossing the north side of Baltimore street and the firemen made a desperate effort to prevent it. The effort was useless, however, and soon the tall, narrow building of Mullin’s hotel began to dart out tongues of flame and the remainder of the buildings between Sharp and Liberty streets were ablaze and the fire was marching north. The flames flew rapidly from place to place and soon the entire south side of Fayette street was in their grasp. Down Fayette to Charles they swept and in a short space of time the building occupied by Putts & Co. was doomed. Seeing that nothing could save it, it was decided to destroy the building with dynamite in the hope of preventing the fire from crossing Charles street. The explosion was successful in accomplishing the object as the entire corner collapsed instantly. This had, apparently, no effect upon the progress of the fire, for almost before the sound of the falling walls had died away the building on the east side of Charles street began to blaze, and it was evident the block between Charles and St. Paul streets were doomed.

In a desperate but futile effort to prevent the fire going further to the east building after building was dynamited in this block, but it was all of no avail and the fire swept steadily onward.

The Daily Record building was soon in flames and not many minutes later the fire had leaped over St. Paul street and the lofty and massive Calvert building began to emit smoke and flame. The Equitable building, just over a narrow alley, quickly followed and these two immense buildings gave forth a glare that lighted the city for miles around.

It was thought that the fire could be prevented from crossing to the north side of Fayette street and here again a desperate stand was made by the firemen. Again it was useless and soon the large building of Hall, Headlington & Co., on the northwest corner of Charles and Fayette streets, was blazing brightly. With scarcely a pause the fire leaped across to the east side of Charles street and enveloped the handsome building of the Union Trust company, while at the same time the large buildings to the west of Hall, Headlington & Co., occupied by Wise Bros. & Oppenheim, Oberndorf & Co., were aflame throughout.

Down Fayette street to the east the flames swept, and soon the new courthouse was ablaze. The fire area then extended along Liberty street north to Fayette, east to Charles, north to Lexington, south on Charles to Baltimore street, east on Baltimore to Holliday and from there in spots to Center Market space.

When it was seen the courthouse could not be saved the court records were all removed to the northern police station, two miles and half away. The Continental Trust building, a thirteen-story structure, caught at the tenth floor and was totally destroyed after burning like a great torch. The private bank of Alexander Brown, located at Baltimore and Calvert streets, in the very heart of the fire district, a one story stone structure, miraculously escaped annihilation, the surviving building out of a great spread of two square miles of costly structures that caught the early morning sun that fateful day. Sunrise that disclosed naught save ruin, chaos and confusion.

Thus raged the warfare of man against a relentless hungry element for 27 hours. It was 11:40 Sunday morning when the fire started. At 2:40 Monday afternoon the joyful news was spread that the allied fire departments had the flames within control. Hotels, banks, business houses, factories — in fact everything in the heart of the city was swept away. All the local newspapers save one were destroyed, the street car systems were without power to operate and the lighting facilities were sadly crippled. Towering ruins loomed up on every hand, swaying in the breeze and jeopardizing life. And still the countless fires in the burned district raged on, illuminating the heavens and clouding the atmosphere with dense smoke against which myriads of sparks twinkled like miniature stars.

The last places to go before the fire started to burn itself out, were the icehouse and coal yard of the American Ice company. The coal yard, which spread out about 200 yards south of the icehouse, was the means of staying the march of the flames on the south and Jones falls on the east. The Norfolk wharf of the Baltimore steam-packet company, which was stocked with barrels of resin and other miscellaneous merchandise, was destroyed before the ice company’s plant was reached.

At 10 o’clock Monday the fire was reported under control, but a little later the flames were sweeping along the harbor and river men began taking their vessels rapidly out into the middle of the stream. There were about seventy-five of these vessels and they were hastily anchored down the bay. The buildings of the Standard Oil company and the Buckman Fruit company along the water front were soon in flames. This renewal of the energy of the fire continued until well along into the afternoon of the second day.

Following is a partial list of the principal buildings destroyed in the baptism of fire or by dynamite in an effort to stay the flames:

The courthouse, loss $4,000,000
The postoffice 1,000,000
Equitable building, twelve stories 1,135,000
Union Trust Company building, 11 stories 1,000,000
Continental Trust building, 16 stories 1,125,000
Baltimore & Ohio general offices 1,125,000
Calvert building 1,125,000
Hopkins bank.
Holliday Street theater.
Guardian Trust building.
Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone company.
Maryland Trust company.
Alexander Brown Banking company.
Bell Telephone building.
Custom house.
Western Union building.
National Exchange bank.
United States Express office.
Mercantile Trust building.
Baltimore American.
Baltimore Herald.
Baltimore Sun.
Baltimore Evening News.
Baltimore Record.
John E. Hurst, dry goods, $1,500,000.
William Koch Importing company, $150,000.
Daniel Miller company, dry goods, $1,500,000.
Dixon & Bartlett company, shoes, $175,000.
Joyner, Wilse & Co., hats and caps, $100,000.
Spragins, Buck & Co., shoes, $125,000.
Cohen - Adler Shoe company, $125,000.
L. S. Fitman, women’s wrappers; Jacob R. Seligman, paper, and Nathan Rosen, women’s cloaks, $100,000.
Morton, Samuels & Co., boots and shoes, and Strauss Bros., storage, $100,000.
Bates Rubber company, $135,000.
Guggenheimer, Wells & Co., lithographers and printers, $125,000.
M. Friedman & Sons, clothing, and F. Schleunes, clothing, $150,000.
Schwarzkopf Toy company, $100,000.
National Exchange bank, building and contents, $125,000.
S. Lowman & Co., clothing, $125,000.
John E. Hurst & Co., storage, $150,000.
Lawrence & Gould Shoe company and Bates Hat company, $125,000.
S. Ginsberg & Co., clothing, $125,000.
Winkelmann & Brown Drug company, $125,000.
R. M. Sutton & Co., dry goods, $1,500,000.
Chesapeake Shoe company, $100,000.
S. F. & A. F. Miller, clothing manufacturers, $150,000.
S. Halle Sons, boots and shoes, $100,000.
Strauss Bros., dry goods, $250,000.
A. C. Meyer & Co., patent medicines, $150,000.
Strauss, Eiseman & Co., shirt manufacturers, $150,000.
North Bros. & Strauss, $150,000.
McDonald & Fisher, wholesale paper, $100,000.
Wiley, Bruster & Co., dry goods, and F. W. & E. Dammam, cloth, $125,000.
Henry Oppenheimer & Co., clothing, and Van Sant, Jacobs & Co., shirts, $175,000.
Lewis Lauer & Co., shirts, $100,000.
Champion Shoe Manufacturing company and Driggs, Currin & Co., shoes, $100,000.
Mendels Bros., women’s wrappers, $125,000.
Blankenberg, Gehrmann & Co., notions, $125,000.
Leo Keene & Co., women’s cloaks, and Henry Pretzfelder & Co., boots and shoes, $125,000.
Peter Rohe & Son, harness manufacturers, $125,000.
James Roberts Manufacturing company, plumbers’ supplies, $100,000.
R. J. Anderf & Co., boots and shoes, and James Robertson Manufacturing company, storage, $100,000.
L. Grief & Bros., clothing, $150,000.
Maas & Kemper, embroidery and laces, $125,000.

Within 72 hours of the, start of the fire the people of Baltimore were giving thought to reconstruction. After an investigation it was announced that the vaults of the Continental Trust company, which contained securities to the value of $200,000,000, were intact and that most of the great bank and safety deposit vaults escaped destruction. To relieve banks and citizens from the embarrassment of financial transactions the next ten days were declared legal holidays in the commonwealth of Maryland.

Mayor McLane reflected local public sentiment when he sent out the following declaration to the world at large:

“Baltimore will now enter undaunted into the task of resurrection. A greater and more beautiful city will rise from the ruins and we shall make of this calamity a future blessing. We are staggered by the terrible blow, but we are not discouraged, and every energy of the city as a municipality and its citizens as private individuals will be devoted to a rehabilitation that will not only prove the stuff we are made of but be a monument to the American spirit.”

With the exception of the Baltimore World all the local newspapers suffered the loss of their plants, moved their staffs to Washington and issued editions regularly from there devoted to Baltimore news. The World, published in the thick of the ruin and desolation gave voice to its sentiment in the following editorial:

“God be merciful unto those who suffered from the awful calamity that swept down on Baltimore.

“Tongue fails; pen is inadequate and refuses to comprehend the extent of the disaster that has overtaken us. We have heard of awful calamities to others; in fancied security we have looked on in sympathy while others have suffered. Now the pain, the anxiety, the suffering is ours and we stand appalled, unable to realize the immensity of the terrible affair.

“The World is the only newspaper office in the city that is standing. Once it was on fire and was saved only by the earnest, valiant and courageous work of the World employes and the goodness of God. To our suffering contemporaries we extend the greatest sympathy and to the hundreds of other sufferers also. For those thousands who are thrown out of work in the dead of winter, with sorrow and suffering staring them in the face, our heart throbs with a feeling that we cannot express. All we can say is, ‘God help them.’”

Local and national military authorities took immediate charge of the situation to prevent looting and disorder, possible because of the vast sums of money in the various safes and vaults scattered about in the ruins. Recognition of the disaster came from the nation in another practical form. A bill was promptly and appropriately introduced in Washington by Representative Martin Emerich of Illinois reciting the destruction by fire in preamble and then continuing:

Whereas, The fire has so crippled the merchants and business interests in the City of Baltimore that they are unable adequately and properly to provide and care for the many who are rendered ‘homeless and penniless by this calamity, and

Whereas, The City of Baltimore and its people are probably unable in the face of the unlooked for catastrophe to provide proper means for effectually checking the fire and promptly to remove the embers and debris; and

Whereas, The same, while remaining, are constantly a menace to the safety of many citizens, it is enacted that the Secretary of the Treasury be authorized and directed to pay upon the order of the City Council of Baltimore, certified by the Mayor of the city, to any designated authority of said city, any necessary sum of money not exceeding the sum of $1,000,000 out of any money in the treasury of the United States not otherwise appropriated, to be used for the purpose of providing shelter for those rendered homeless by the said fire, and also to be used for the purpose of clearing the streets and localities devastated by the fire and in order to render the city available for the use of residents and others as speedily as possible.

The bill was referred to the committee on appropriations.

Two days after the fire insurance men estimated the loss at $125,000,000 and the insurance carried at $90,000,000.

For the thousands of clerks and other employes whose positions are gone forever there seemed to be nothing before them but to move to other cities.

In the work of rebuilding came employment for another army, but it offered no avenue of escape to those whose doom was sounded by the explosions of dynamite and the crash of falling walls. Few of the men were fitted for the heavy labor of the building trades.

Baltimore’s great wholesale houses and wharf district have been ruined—not irrevocably, but to such an extent that the fear grips the heart of every Baltimore business man that the city may be unable to recover from it for many years.

Amid ruins still hot and smoking Baltimore began its resurrection and made known its determination to rise, Phoenix-like, through its own efforts, by politely, yet firmly declining proffers of help that poured in from all sides. The blow that befell Baltimore aroused an intense civic pride that found expression in an effort to work out its own station. In declining financial assistance Mayor McLane was actuated by the spirit shown by the Chamber of Commerce, Stock Exchange and practically every local commercial body, which came forward with offers of all the money needed by the city for immediate use. It was decided that should the Herculean task prove too great for the municipality there would still be ample time to seek outside assistance.

While heavily armed soldiers marched about the blistering ruins with stately tread holding back those who only a few hours before had fought the police to save their valuables at the risk of their lives, the latter—energetic business men— were already preparing to re-open their establishments. Old buildings, long unused, private residences near the business section, in fact, every available structure to be secured blossomed forth within 24 hours with crudely lettered signs on board or cloth announcing that within was the temporary office of a firm. The names on some of these signs were those that rank high in the financial and commercial circles of the world, and in these temporary offices men who for years have known only mahogany desks worked on cheap tables and plain boards.

One of the surprises of the fire was the discovery after the excitement was over that two financial concerns whose homes were directly in the path of the flames escaped practically unharmed. These were the Mercantile Trust company and Brown Brothers’ Bank. The escape of these buildings was clue to their lack of height. They do not exceed four stories, and as they were surrounded by lofty structures the flames swept over them.

Unconcealed joy greeted the discovery and the information that millions upon millions in securities in various vaults escaped destruction, whereas all was at first believed to have been swept away. Practically all of the vaults and strong rooms and safes of the financial concerns whose buildings were destroyed were found unhurt. A tremendous loss in securities had been anticipated at first, and when vault after vault yielded up its treasures unharmed the joy of the guardians was boundless.

From one trust company’s safes alone papers to the amount of more than $200,000,000 were recovered. Merchants and their assistants, smoke soiled and begrimed and hollow-eyed from anxiety and loss of sleep, worked like laborers in the smoking ruins to uncover their safes, and in nearly every instance they were rewarded by intact contents.

Lest we forget : Chicago's awful theater horror, Chapter XXVI, The Story of the Burning of Baltimore, pages 357-368



February 7, 1904

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