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The Baltimore Fire of 1904

But a greater calamity than any of these, in the amount of property destroyed, was the great conflagration which swept over the city of Baltimore in the year 1904. The fire started in the wholesale dry goods house of John E. Hurst & Co., German Street and Hopkins Place, on the morning of Sunday, February 7, and raged for thirty hours, destroying almost entirely the business section of the city and causing a loss of not far from a hundred million dollars, a loss unparalleled except by the great Chicago fire of 1871.

Before the alarm could reach the engine houses the whole Hurst building was in flames, and ten minutes later an explosion caused it to collapse and spread the fire to the adjacent buildings in all directions. A fierce wind blowing at the time spread the flames so rapidly that they got beyond the control of the fire department. After a stubborn fight the brave firemen had to confess that they were exhausted by the strain, and aid from other cities was asked and was cheerfully given. Engines and men came from Washington, Philadelphia, Wilmington, New York and other cities. Even then, with seventy engines, the flames could not be checked, but burnt their way fiercely to the water front and to Jones Falls.

When it was found that the engines were powerless, dynamite was used, and many buildings were blown up in the hope that the flames could not leap across the vacant spaces left. Too often this hope proved illusory, and before the fire was checked twenty-two banks, eleven trust companies, the chamber of commerce, the stock exchange, and all but one of the newspaper offices had been wholly or partially destroyed. Railroad offices and business buildings of every kind, wholesale and retail, and including many of the handsomest and newest, were burned. Nor were historic buildings spared; among others the Maryland Institute and the Church of the Messiah perished.

View of the Ruins at the Corner of Baltimore and Charles Street
After the Fire.

Fortunately the fire started on a Sunday, otherwise the loss of life in the crowded business portion of the city would doubtless have been appalling. As it was, there were almost no lives lost.

The Fourth and Fifth Maryland regiments and the Naval brigade patrolled the streets and mounted guard in the ruined district in order to protect the buried vaults, safes, and valuables from thieves, many of whom, it is said, flocked to Baltimore from other cities, only to be arrested by the vigilant police and sent away again. During the night of February 7 a company of regulars were sent into the city from Fort McHenry to aid the police department in protecting life and property. They were withdrawn the next day.

Later on the government at Washington sent a company of regulars to the city to assist the police department by guarding the government property in the city.

At no time during the fire, nor afterwards, in the exciting days which followed, was the city under the control of any other body than the legally constituted police department. Governor Warfield issued a proclamation declaring a legal holiday from Februarys to February 15. This was necessary, as the banks and trust companies could not reach their vaults, buried in the debris, for days, because of the intense heat. Many a merchant opened his buried safe at the end of a week, only to find the valuable contents within burned to ashes.

Maryland AHGP

Source: History of Maryland, by L. Magruder Passano, Wm. J.C. Dulany Company, 1901.


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