Great Baltimore Fire

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The aftermath of the fire

The Great Baltimore Fire raged in Baltimore, Maryland, United States, on Sunday, February 7, and Monday, February 8, 1904. 1,231 firefighters were required to bring the blaze under control, both professional paid Truck and Engine companies from the city's B.C.F.D. and volunteers from the surrounding counties and outlying towns of Maryland, as well as out-of-state units that arrived on the major railroads. It destroyed a major part of central Baltimore, including over 1,500 buildings covering an area of some 140 acres (57 ha). From North Howard Street in the west and southwest, the flames spread north through the retail shopping area as far as Fayette Street and began moving eastward, pushed along by the prevailing winds. Narrowly missing the new 1900 Circuit Courthouse (now Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse), passed the historic Battle Monument Square from 1815-27 at North Calvert Street, and the quarter-century old Baltimore City Hall (of 1875) on Holliday Street; and finally further east to the Jones Falls stream which divided the downtown business district from the old East Baltimore tightly-packed residential neighborhoods of Jonestown (also known as Old Town) and newly named "Little Italy". The wide swath of the fire burned as far south to the wharves and piers lining the north side of the old "Basin" (today's "Inner Harbor") of the Northwest Branch of the Baltimore Harbor and Patapsco River facing along Pratt Street . It is believed to be the third worst conflagration to affect an American city in history, surpassed only by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Other major urban disasters that were comparable (but not fires) were the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and most recently, Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico coast in August 2005.

One reason for the fire's long duration was the lack of national standards in firefighting equipment. Although fire engines from nearby cities (such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. as well as units from New York City, Virginia, Wilmington, and Atlantic City) responded, with horse-drawn pumpers, wagons and other equipment (primitive by today's standards) carried by the railroads on flat cars and box cars, many could not help because their hose couplings could not fit Baltimore's hydrants. Very few, if any, were motorized in those early years except for steam engines.

Much of the destroyed area was rebuilt in relatively short order, and the city adopted a building code, stressing fireproof materials. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the fire was the impetus it gave to efforts to standardize firefighting equipment in the United States, especially hose couplings.


Almost forgotten in this day of strict fire codes is that in centuries past, fires regularly swept through cities, frequently destroying large areas of them. Close living quarters, lax, unenforced, or non-existent building codes; and a widespread dearth of firefighting services all contributed to both the frequency and the extent of city fires. The rapid growth of American cities in the nineteenth century contributed to the danger.

In addition, firefighting practices and equipment were largely unstandardized: each city had its own system. As time passed, these cities invested more in the systems they already had, increasing the cost of any conversion. In addition, early equipment was often patented by its manufacturer.[1] By 1903, there were over 600 sizes and variations of fire hose couplings in the United States.[1] Although efforts to establish standards had been made since the 1870s, they had come to little: no city wanted to abandon its system, few saw any reason to adopt standards, and equipment manufacturers did not want competition.[1]

Progression of the fire[edit]

John E. Hurst Building, site of the fire's outbreak

Fire was reported first at the John Hurst and Company building on West German Street at Hopkins Place (modern site at the southwest corner of the Baltimore Civic Center of 1962, later the 1st Mariner Arena) in the western part of downtown Baltimore at 10:48 a.m. on Sunday, February 7, and quickly spread. Soon, it became apparent that the fire was outstripping the ability of the city's firefighting resources to fight it, and calls for help were telegraphed to other cities. By 1:30 p.m., units from Washington, D.C. were arriving on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Camden Street Station. To halt the fire, officials decided to use a firebreak, and dynamited buildings around the existing fire. This tactic, however, was unsuccessful. Not until 5:00 p.m. the next day was the fire brought under control, after burning for thirty hours.

One reason for the fire's duration was the lack of national standards in firefighting equipment. Fire crews and fire engines came from as far away as Philadelphia and Washington that day (units from New York City were on the way, but were blocked by a train accident; they arrived the next day - Monday, February 8). The crews brought their own equipment. Most could only watch helplessly when they discovered that their hoses could not fit Baltimore's gauge size of water hydrants. High winds and freezing temperatures added to the difficulty for firefighters and further contributed to the severity of the fire.[2] As a result, the fire burned over 30 hours, destroying 1,545 buildings[2] spanning 70 city blocks—amounting to over 140 acres (57 ha).[3]

While Baltimore was criticized for its hydrants, this was a problem that was not unique to Baltimore. During the time of the Great Fire, American cities had more than six hundred different sizes and variations of fire hose couplings."[citation needed] It is known that as outside firefighters returned to their home cities they gave interviews to newspapers that condemned Baltimore and talked up their own actions during the crisis. In addition, many newspapers were guilty of taking for truth the word of travelers who, in actuality, had only seen the fire as their trains passed through the area. All of this aside, the responding agencies and their equipment did prove useful as their hoses only represented a small part of the equipment brought with them. One benefit to this tragedy was the standardization of hydrants nationwide.[4][5]

In addition to firefighters, outside police officers, as well as the Maryland National Guard and the Naval Brigade, were utilized during the fire to maintain order and protect the city. Officers from Philadelphia and New York were sent to assist the City Police Department. Police and soldiers were used to keep looters away and keep the fire zone free of civilians. The Naval Brigade secured the waterfront and waterways to keep spectators away.

Thomas Albert Lurz (b. January 9, 1874), a Baltimore native, made a career as a letter carrier with the U. S. Post Office. He was honored by the U. S. Post Office for his efforts in rescuing tons of mail from the burning Central Post Office on the east side of Battle Monument Square, on North Calvert Street, between East Lexington and Fayette Streets. Thomas gathered a group of men who loaded bags of mail onto horse–drawn wagons and directed it by wagon and on foot to North and Pennsylvania Avenues. They stood guard while the mail sat on the sidewalk until it could be protected by the Maryland National Guard when it was called out.[citation needed] Back at the General Post Office, employees kept spraying on water on the sides and roof of the building and were able to keep the damage to a minimum and saved the 1889 Italian Renaissance pile with its nine towers and central tall clock tower (later razed and replaced by the current 1932 building, later owned by the city as Courthouse East).


Over $150,000,000 (in 1904 USD) worth of damage was done, which equates to approximately $3.84 billion in 2014 dollars. Immediately after the fire, Mayor Robert McLane was quoted in The Baltimore News as saying, "To suppose that the spirit of our people will not rise to the occasion is to suppose that our people are not genuine Americans. We shall make the fire of 1904 a landmark not of decline but of progress." He then refused assistance, stating "As head of this municipality, I cannot help but feel gratified by the sympathy and the offers of practical assistance which have been tendered to us. To them I have in general terms replied, 'Baltimore will take care of its own, thank you.'"[citation needed] Two years later, on September 10, 1906, the The Sun reported that the city had risen from the ashes and that "One of the great disasters of modern time had been converted into a blessing."[6]

Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, looking West from East Pratt and North Gay Streets
Same view in 1906, 2 years after the fire

Most of the books written on "The Great Fire" stated that no deaths occurred as a direct relation to the fire.[7] A bronze historical marker from 1907 commemorates "The Great Fire", located next to the main western entrance (on the left) of the old "Wholesale Fish Market" that was constructed on Market Place (between East Baltimore and Lombard Streets), as one of three new Centre Market adjoining structures to replace the old burned second "Centre Market" building (which also housed the Maryland Institute) of 1851, and is now the "Port Discovery" children's museum (since late 1980s). This major commemorative tablet of the disaster, also reads "Lives Lost: None."[8] However, a recently rediscovered newspaper story from The Sun of the time[9] tells of the charred remains of a "colored man" being pulled, almost two weeks after the fire, from the harbor basin, near the modern area of the Inner Harbor at Constellation Dock (old Pier 2) where the historic Civil War-era sailing frigate USS Constellation is currently docked.[10]

Five lost lives were later attributed indirectly to the fire. Two members of the 4th Regiment of the Maryland National Guard, Private John Undutch of Company 'F', and Second Lieutenant John V. Richardson of Company 'E', both fell ill and died as a result of pneumonia. Fireman Mark Kelly and Fire Lieutenant John A. McKnew also died of pneumonia and tuberculosis due to exposure during the Great Fire.[11] The fifth person who died as a result of the fire was Martin Mullin, the proprietor of Mullin's Hotel.[12] Located on the northwest corner of West Baltimore and North Liberty Streets (above Hopkins Place), the hotel was a block away to the north from the John E. Hurst Building where the fire started.

In the aftermath, 35,000 people were left unemployed.[13] After the fire, the city's downtown "Burnt District" was rebuilt using more fireproof materials, such as granite pavers.[citation needed]


As a result of the fire, a city building code was finally adopted. Public pressure, coupled with demands of companies insuring the newly re-built buildings, spurred the effort. The process took seventeen nights of hearings and multiple City Council reviews.[2]

A national standard for fire hydrant and hose connections was adopted by the National Fire Protection Association. However, inertia remained, and conversion was slow; it still remains incomplete. One hundred years after the Baltimore Fire, only 18 of the 48 most populous American cities were reported to have installed national standard fire hydrants.[14] Hose incompatibility contributed to the Oakland Firestorm of 1991: although the standard hose coupling has a diameter of 2.5 inches (64 mm), Oakland's hydrants had 3-inch (76 mm) couplings.[1]

H. L. Mencken, future famed columnist/commentator/author and linguist, at the beginning of his blossoming journalism and literary career, survived the fire, but the offices of his newspaper, the Baltimore Herald, at the northwest corner of St. Paul and East Fayette Streets, were destroyed on the northern edge of the "Burnt District", but the City's massive new Circuit Courthouse just to the east, across St. Paul Street, completed just four years earlier, survived untouched. The Herald printed an edition the first night of the fire on the press of The Washington Post, in exchange for providing photographs to The Post, but could not continue this arrangement as The Post had a long-standing agreement with the Baltimore Evening News. For the next five weeks The Herald was printed nightly on the press of the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph and transported 100 miles (160 km) to Baltimore on a special train, provided free of charge by the B&O Railroad. In addition, the other major newspapers of the city were also devastated, including The Sun with its famous "Iron Building", considered the forerunner of modern steel skyscrapers, built 1851 at East Baltimore Street. Across the intersecting South Street-Guilford Avenue was the publishing headquarters of The Sun's main competitor, The Baltimore News, founded 1871 and built in 1873 with its mansard roof and corner clock tower. This intersection, the information center of town for most of the later 19th century, was the site of many "newspaper wars" with the bulletin boards, mounted chalk boards on the front of the buildings, posters and hawking "newsies" (newspaper delivery boys—made famous in the 1990s by the Broadway musical and later Disney movie Newsies). The Baltimore American, the town's oldest news publication, dating back to 1796 and traditionally further to 1773, owned and published by local civic titan, General Felix Agnus, was also burnt out of its offices and so out-of-town arrangements had to be made to have papers printed and shipped back into the city by train.

Mencken relates the fire and its aftermath in the penultimate chapter of Newspaper Days: 1899-1906, the second volume of his autobiographical trilogy, published 1941. He writes, "When I came out of it at last I was a settled and indeed almost a middle-aged man, spavined by responsibility and aching in every sinew, but I went into it a boy, and it was the hot gas of youth that kept me going."[15]

The "Box 414 Association", which has assisted the Baltimore City Fire Department for many years, acts like a local American Red Cross, or the United Service Organization (USO) for the military, sending refreshments and break-time trucks to the sites of major alarms and fires to provide exhausted firefighters some comfort and snacks. "Box 414" was the first alarm box pulled on the morning of Sunday, February 7, 1904. Ceremonies of the BCFD are held annually at the bronze statue of a firefighter at the old headquarters of the Department, facing City Hall, the War Memorial Building and the broad ceremonial plaza in between at East Lexington and North Gay Streets. Observances are also held at the closest street corner to the Great Fire's beginnings at South Howard and West Lombard Streets alongside the old Civic Center/Arena. On the Centennial observances in February 2004, an exhibition was mounted at the Maryland Historical Society with an accompanying internet website, and a number of other events, lectures, and tours through the auspices of the Fire Museum of Maryland on York Road in Lutherville-Timonium-Cockeysville in Baltimore County. Several commemorative stories and special sections were published during the month in Baltimore's only remaining daily newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, and coverage was televised on the four local television stations' local news programs, along with several documentaries and interviews/discussion programs on the city's public radio network (NPR) station, WYPR-FM. An additional commemorative "coffee-table" style illustrated book The Great Baltimore Fire by Peter B. Petersen, was published through the Maryland Historical Society to supplement the earlier, well-known historical tome and authority Baltimore Afire! by Harold Williams of The Baltimore Sun, with additional photos, information and stories, and some more recent historical scholarship and research.

The fire is also memorialized in the folk song "Baltimore Fire" by (Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, recorded on Columbia Records (15509-D, May 6, 1929).

Fire!, fire!, I heard the cry
From every breeze that passes by
All the world was one sad cry of pity
Strong men in anguish prayed
Calling out to the heavens for aid
While the fire in ruins was laid
Fair Baltimore, the beautiful city

More recently, the Baltimore-based rock band J Roddy Walston and the Business memorialized the fire in "Nineteen Ought Four", on their album Hail Mega Boys.

See also[edit]

Coordinates: 39°17′19.3″N 76°37′9″W / 39.288694°N 76.61917°W / 39.288694; -76.61917[16]


  1. ^ a b c d Momar D. Seck and David D. Evans, Major U.S. Cities Using National Standard Fire Hydrants, One Century After the Great Baltimore Fire, National Institute of Standards and Technology, NISTIR 7158, August 2004, pp. 7-9.
  2. ^ a b c Baltimore: The Building of an American City, by Sherry H. Olson, published 1980, revised edition published 1997, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (Md.), ISBN 0-8018-5640-X, pp. 246-48.
  3. ^ The Architecture of Baltimore: An Illustrated History, by Mary Ellen Hayward, Frank R. Shivers, Richard Hubbard Howland; Published 2004, JHU Press, Baltimore (Md.), ISBN 0-8018-7806-3, p. 237.
  4. ^ The Great Baltimore Fire, Peter B. Petersen, Published 2004, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore (Md.), p. 127.
  5. ^ "Eye Witnesses Tell of Rush of Flames," The New York Times, February 9, 1904.
  6. ^ "Two Years After Fire Baltimore is Booming". The Baltimore Sun. 7 February 1906. Retrieved 7 February 2012. 
  7. ^ Kelly, Jacques (February 5, 2011). "Great Fire of 1904 took several lives". The Baltimore Sun. 
  8. ^ Baltimore's Great Fire Marker – The Historical Marker Database.
  9. ^ The Baltimore Sun, "One Life Lost in Fire." February 20, 1904,p. 12.
  10. ^ Jensen, Brennen (September 3, 2003) Charmed Life: Lives Lost: One Baltimore City Paper
  11. ^ The Great Baltimore Fire, by Peter B. Petersen, Published 2004, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore (Md.), p. 196.
  12. ^ New York Times. "Death Result of Baltimore Fire." March 13, 1904, p. 14.
  13. ^ Kaltenbach, Chris (February 6, 2004). "Great Fire is history that did not go up in smoke". The Baltimore Sun. 
  14. ^ Seck and Evans, p. 111.
  15. ^ Mencken, H. L. (1941). Newspaper days: 1899-1906. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. p. 278. 
  16. ^ Maryland Digital Cultural Cultural Heritage Project. "Great Baltimore Fire of 1904". Enoch Pratt Free Library. Retrieved 22 June 2012. 

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