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Methodist feels historical bond with Great Fire of 1904

The Rev. Emora Brannan, retired pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, in Homeland, stood Sunday at Charles and Fayette streets, visualizing the raging fire that roared through the intersection more than a century ago.

Brannan also visualized a scene that wasn't mentioned on the annual Great Fire of 1904 tour, sponsored by the Fire Museum of Maryland, in Lutherville.

In that lesser known, but historically important tableau, the operators of the Methodist Historical Society are salvaging any documents they can by loading them frantically onto a horse-drawn wagon to be whisked away for safekeeping at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church in Charles Village.

"It was all very important to Methodism," said the 69-year-old Rodgers Forge resident, who retired from Grace United Methodist in July and now does a variety of part-time work for Lovely Lane. "We have a special feeling for this fire."

Brannan was among 55 people who paid $48 per person to take the tour led by fire museum director and curator Steve Heaver, of Roland Park, and noted Baltimore historian and tour guide Wayne Schaumburg, of Perry Hall.

This year's bus and walking tour was held three days before the 108-year anniversary of the fire, which destroyed about 2,500 businesses and 140 acres on Feb. 8, 1904.

The tour started at the fire museum, 1301York Road, where Schaumburg showed slides of newspaper clippings, photos and maps, showing the effect of the fire that started in the John E. Hurst & Co.'s "dry goods and lotions" building on the south side of what is now Redwood Street.

The fire is believed to have started accidentally by someone flicking a cigarette butt or cigar stub into the basement, said Schaumburg. He said researchers and historians believe the fateful spark got in through a broken "deadeye" hole, which allowed light into the basement through the sidewalk.

He also showed photos of the rebirth of the downtown area, within two years.

"This is the first renaissance," Schaumburg said, showing a photo of an official city "progress" celebration to which the entire country was invited, in 1906. "The Inner Harbor was second."

Tour-goers then rode a chartered bus downtown to visit the best known points of interest associated with the fire, like a "hot corner" at Baltimore and Calvert streets, where the old Consolidated Trust building, now called Calvert Plaza, was gutted, Schaumburg said.

Baltimore Street was also hot for Brannan, who said it was at 116 Baltimore St. that the Methodist Historical Society was located. It's now at Lovely Lane, where a Methodist museum is also located, Brannan said.

Schaumburg also pointed out highlights such as the site of O'Neill & Co. and J.W. Putts & Co. department stores. The latter now is Johns Hopkins University's Downtown Center, 10 NorthCharles St.

The fire glowed so bright that it could be seen from as far away as Washington and the Eastern Shore, and telephone company switchboard operators couldn't tell if their lights were lit, Schaumburg said.

He also told the apocryphal story of O'Neill's department store owner Thomas O'Neill, who told God that he would build a church if his store was spared. O'Neill felt his prayers were answered when the wind shifted away from his building. He bequeathed money to build the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, in Homeland.

The tour ended at the old Fish Market, now Port Discovery, and the site of the only plaque that commemorates the fire. It was at the harbor that firefighters made their last stand as 30-mile-an-hour winds propelled the fire toward the water.

The tour-takers came from as far away as Middle River and Abingdon, to see what they had read about in history books or heard about anecdotally in their youth.

"I can hear my father talking about it," said retired trucking company executive Patrick Smith, 68, of Timonium. Smith said his father, who was born on Greenmount Avenue, used to talk about seeing the great fire.

Others on the tour were learning about the fire for the first time, including paid fire museum docent Jennifer Swisko, 27, of Abingdon.

"Until I started working at the fire museum, I didn't know much about the Great Baltimore Fire," she said. "I think it's a wonderful tour. I wasn't sure what to expect."

Heaver said Schaumburg has been doing great fire tours for 40 years and the fire museum for 30 years. Tours normally are filled to capacity, he said.

"I think (it's) because it's it had such an enormous effect on the city that our roots were changed," Heaver said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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