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Retro Baltimore

How Baltimore’s Great Fire of 1904 reverberates into 2022

The antique fire engine is draped in black fabric, with a photo of three Baltimore firefighters who died while responding to a blaze Jan. 24.

Two of the firefighters killed that day — Lt. Kelsey Sadler and Kenny Lacayo — were posted at Engine Company 14, formed in 1822 and the same station where this steam pumping engine once belonged.

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Edward Burgee, collections technician with the Fire Museum of Maryland and a retired firefighter with the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, said he was gutted by the first responders’ deaths and wanted to honor them accordingly.

“We’re all brothers,” he said. “We lose one, we hear about it, we feel it.”

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Fires — whether of 1904 or 2022 — are top of mind at this Lutherville museum, which houses 40 antique fire engines including several that, like the number 14 steam pumping engine, responded to Baltimore’s Great Fire of 1904.

Last weekend, the museum held a virtual event to commemorate the conflagration, which started Feb. 7 and burned through the following day. In previous years, the museum has conducted guided bus tours to show the fire’s progress through the city — though those have been on hold during the pandemic.

Burgee and other museum staff members can bring the fire to life and recall its significance for the city’s history — and even the nation’s.

“The fire itself was a defining moment for the city,” said Stephen G. Heaver, the museum director.

Resulting in the destruction of much of the city’s downtown and the ruin of 1,500 buildings, it also paved the way for improved fire safety standards, and spurred the redesign and modernization of Baltimore.

The cause is unclear. Some people think it was started by a lit cigar that rolled into the basement of a dry goods store. Around 11 that morning, an explosion shook the Hurst Building at Hopkins and German Street, now Redwood.

“That’s when things really began to happen quickly,” Heaver said.

By 11:30, the building had collapsed, crushing a steam pumping engine like the one on display at the museum.

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The museum recalls the heroics of the firefighters, the machines they used and even the horses that pulled them.

Just before the Hurst building fell, a huge horse named Goliath stood outside, harnessed to a 65-foot water tower. When flames singed his back legs he lunged forward, pulling the tower to safety.

Powerful winds that changed direction multiple times propelled the blaze through downtown, Heaver said. It was a Sunday; hundreds of people left their church services, jamming the streets to watch the spectacle and hampering rescue efforts.

As night fell, the fire in Baltimore was visible from Havre de Grace, said Burgee, whose aunt was 8 years old and lived in Harford County at the time. “She could see the glow in the sky from that far away.”

Parents put children to bed in clothes in case they should need to evacuate homes overnight, and residents placed wet blankets on the roofs of their homes to prevent flying embers from catching on. Burgee said his grandmother, who lived near Patterson Park, put out a fire on her back porch with an old rug.

The city temporarily went without electricity as workers shut down generators at the main power station before evacuating the building. The four-stacked power plant along the Inner Harbor was one of just a handful of structures to survive the blaze.

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Among the buildings destroyed was The Baltimore Sun’s offices at Baltimore and South streets. The newspaper temporarily relocated its printing operations to Washington, D.C., sharing a press with The Washington Star. Until The Sun closed its printing press in Port Covington this year, it was the only time the newspaper had been printed outside Baltimore.

A few buildings that weren’t destroyed by fire were dynamited as the city sought to level structures to prevent the blaze from spreading. It was, Burgee and Heaver say, an ineffective strategy.

Opposed to this tactic, the owner of O’Neill’s department store, Thomas O’Neill, told officials they would have to dynamite his building with him inside. According to The Sun archives, he woke up the nuns living at the Carmelite Convent at Biddle and Caroline streets and asked them to pray for his store. His building was spared; O’Neill left his estate to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which used part of the money to build the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North Charles Street.

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O’Neill wasn’t the only one to turn to God. In Little Italy, residents prayed to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost causes, to spare their neighborhood. The fire never made it across the Jones Falls stream; in gratitude, neighbors continue to hold an annual festival in his honor.

People have long maintained that no one died in the fire. That’s not true, but casualties for the fire were still remarkably few, given the level of destruction. At least one man was believed to have drowned in the harbor while attempting to escape, and at least one firefighter developed pneumonia and died.

Overall, Baltimore made a remarkable recovery from a tragedy that left much of the city looking “like Nuremberg,” said Heaver, referring to the German city leveled by Allied bombing raids during World War II.

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In 1906, a parade through the city celebrated Baltimore’s comeback. Goliath wore a wreath of flowers around his neck — scars on his back legs a visible reminder of the blaze.

“He was treated pretty much like the hero he was for the rest of his life,” Burgee said.

At times, mistakes led to future innovations. Fire departments from as far away as New York City arrived to help combat the blaze. Once they arrived, they found their hoses couldn’t connect with the hydrants here. That led to the implementation of a national standard for hydrants, still in use today.

Those innovations continue to be relevant in the 21st century. Last week, fire departments from surrounding counties arrived in Baltimore to respond to calls to allow firefighters here to attend the funeral for Lacayo, Sadler, and Lt. Paul Butrim.


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