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Great Fire is history that did not go up in smoke

ArtTourism and LeisureHistoryNewspaper and MagazineGreat Baltimore Fire (1904)

The story of the Baltimore Fire, which raged for two days beginning Feb. 7, 1904, really has little to do with the fire itself, with the fact that it destroyed 70 city blocks, left 35,000 people without jobs or ruined more than 1,500 buildings.

Instead, it's a story of the men who fought it, the citizens who watched it, the businessmen whose spirits refused to be quashed by it and the city that quickly focused more on recovery than mourning.

"Fires happen every day," says Jeannine Disviscour, curator of an exhibit about the fire opening this weekend at the Maryland Historical Society, "and a story may be written, and it doesn't go any further. But this was so large, and it touched so many people, and the response was so tinged with optimism, that it's a story worth retelling, and a story worth looking at 100 years later."

It's a story told through globs of molten, congealed metal that are still being unearthed almost a century later; through a journalist's twisted copy spike, retrieved from the ruins of a building where, only days earlier, he had been laying the foundation of a career that would make him world famous; through a child's crude pen-and-ink drawing of firemen racing through city streets; through a firehouse log book in which events of the day are recorded with a dispassion that's hard to comprehend, given the horrific events being recorded; and through tiny handbells, cast at the request of a church congregation too busy doing God's work to let a little thing like having its building destroyed stop it.

Opening tomorrow at the society's Monument Street headquarters, Baltimore Ablaze: The Great Fire of 1904 showcases more than 300 artifacts from the fire and its aftermath, everything from grains of rice charred by the blaze to horse-drawn pumpers of the kind used by firemen struggling to put it out. Much has been written about the fire and its effect on the city -- including a new book, Peter B. Petersen's The Great Baltimore Fire, being published in conjunction with the exhibit -- but to really get a feel for what happened on that cold February weekend in 1904, there's no substitute for meandering through rooms filled with objects that were there while the fire raged, with eyewitness accounts written by people for whom the fire had yet to become fodder for textbooks, with newspapers that kept people abreast of what was happening, with motion pictures that ensured that succeeding generations throughout the country could understand a city's pain.

"What an exhibition like this does is bring it visually home," says Historical Society Director Dennis Fiori. "What makes a good exhibition is when there is actual material, and in this case, there was a tremendous amount of material collected on the fire. Everybody wanted a souvenir. ... It was such a major event that everybody's parents or great-grandparents saved the material, and documented it."

Adds curator Disviscour, "The stories are so compelling, what we wanted to do was bring them to the foreground -- they represent everyday people's responses to this catastrophic event -- and make it personal and human, allowing us to better understand what they went through and how it relates to what we go through in our lives today."

Baltimore Ablaze includes not only items from the society's collection, but from those of the City Life Museums, donated when the museums were closed in 1997, and the Baltimore Equitable Society, which insured many of the buildings destroyed by the fire (and paid off every claim, according to Disviscour). There are long-held family relics being entrusted to the society only for the duration of the exhibit, and pieces unearthed only recently, such as a glob of molten nails found by Maryland Transit Administration workers expanding the city's Metro line.

There's even film footage of the fire's aftermath, shot by a cameraman working for Thomas A. Edison who visited Baltimore the day after the fire was officially declared extinguished. Historic artifacts don't come any better than that, Disviscour says. "It's the event in three dimensions. It's such an overwhelmingly large event in our city's history, and to see the camera pan across the ruins," the curator says, pausing for a moment to search for the proper adjectives, "it makes you realize the full extent of the devastation -- in a way that's hard to take in in any other way."

"What you find," Fiori suggests, "is that this exhibit is very rich in artifacts. What the artifacts do is bring history to life, and that is what our exhibit is all about."

Among the items on display:

  • H.L. Mencken's copy spike, an upright, pointed piece of steel on which loose papers could be impaled, retrieved by the 23-year-old journalist from the burned-out hulk of The Herald building (an account of his visit to the site, taken from his autobiography, Newspaper Days, is included in the exhibit). The Herald, as a newspaper, barely survived the fire, and its subsequent demise paved the way for Mencken's hire by The Sun.
  • A pen-and-ink drawing (with watercolor added later) by 15-year-old Forrest Lee Griffith, who walked a mile with his father to watch the fire. The drawing depicts his first view of the fire, at St. Paul and Mulberry streets.
  • Tiny bells, cast from the large bell that sat atop the steeple of the Church of the Messiah, at Fayette and Gay streets, the only church building destroyed by the fire. To help raise money for a new building, the bell was retrieved from the ruins, melted down and recast as 2,800 smaller bells, each engraved with the church's name and date of the fire.
  • A painted portrait of a stoic Sherlock Swann, cigar in hand, who was appointed chairman of the Burnt District Commission by Mayor Robert M. McLane and who played a large part in the city fathers' decision to use the fire's aftermath as an opportunity to modernize their city while rebuilding it. Mayor McLane would prove an extended casualty of the fire. On May 30, 1904, less than four months after the business center of his city burned to the ground, he committed suicide -- in part, many believe, because of the difficulties he faced in bringing Baltimore back from the brink. Baltimore Ablaze opens with a $20-a-ticket cocktail reception and guided tours tomorrow from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The exhibit opens to the public Sunday. Information: 410-685-3750, Ext. 321, or www.mdhs.org.
  • Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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