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Baltimore, Maryland Fire

February 7-8, 1904


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.

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