Little Bits of History

Up In Smoke

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 7, 2015
After the fire

After the fire

February 7, 1904: The John Hurst and Company building in Baltimore, Maryland is on fire. The building was in the western part of downtown Baltimore and fire was reported at 10.48 AM on this Sunday morning. It quickly spread. It was soon apparent the fire spread faster than the city firefighters could work and they put out calls for help via telegraph. By 1.30 PM units from Washington, D.C. arrived at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station at Camden Street. They decided to create a firebreak by bringing down buildings with dynamite in the hopes of stopping the spread. It did not work and the fire raged until 5 PM on Monday, February 8.

There were 1,231 firefighters, both professional paid Truck and Engine companies as well as volunteers from surrounding counties and out of state fire companies which arrived via the rail system. Over 1,500 building were destroyed in the 140 acres affected. From North Howard Street, the fire spread through the retail shopping area up to Fayette Street and then winds blew the fire eastward. Winds whipped the blaze in erratic fashion and the fire missed then newly-built 1900 Circuit Courthouse, the historic Battle Monument, and the old Baltimore City Hall. Flames traveled as far south as the north side of the harbor. It is considered to be the third most devastating fire in the US after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the San Francisco Earthquake Fire of 1906.

One of the reasons the fire was able to burn for more than 30 hours was the non-standardization in firefighting equipment. Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. as well as units from New York City, Virginia, Wilmington, and Atlantic City responded to the call for help. They were still using horse drawn pumpers which, although primitive by our standards, would have helped contain the blaze. Their hose couplings did not fit with Baltimore’s fire hydrants. Many fire fighting systems were patented and by 1903 there were over 600 sizes and variations of hose couplings in America. Although standardization was desired from 1870 onward, no city wanted to abandon their own system and pay for the standardized upgrades.

Over $150 million (about $3.84 billion today) worth of damages were caused by the fire. Baltimore was offered help in rebuilding, but the Mayor declined. A city building code was finally adopted and enforced and that along with demands from insurance companies insuring the newly constructed buildings provided a safety net to ensure another blaze like this one never happened again. A national standard for fire hydrant and hose couplings was adopted by the National Fire Protection Association but it was slow to be adopted. In fact, by 2004 only 18 of the 48 most populous American cities had complied.

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. – Mayor Robert McLane

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.’ – Mayor Robert McLane

One of the great disasters of modern time had been converted into a blessing. – The Sun of Baltimore reporting on September 10, 1906

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. – HL Mecken on surviving the fire

Also on this day: Pluto v. Neptune – In 1979, Pluto moved inside Neptune’s orbit.
Finally – In 1971, Switzerland gives women the vote.
The Little Tramp – In 1914, Charlie Chaplin first plays The Little Tramp in the  Kid Auto Races at Venice.
Mud March – In 1907, the Mud March took place in London.
Bonfire of the Vanities – In 1497, Girolamo Savonarola began a bonfire of the vanities.

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