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Jacques Kelly: The Great Fire of Baltimore will not die out

The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 is one of those city tales in which the reality is greater than the myth. The blaze began innocently enough, Sunday morning, Feb. 7, 1904, at the John E. Hurst warehouse, a structure that stood on the site of what is now the Baltimore Arena, at Liberty near Baltimore Street. By Tuesday morning, Feb. 9, the old downtown — with the harbor’s shipping piers — was in ashes.

It’s a story of what happened and did not happen. Its origin has never been determined. And the event itself was an ideal storm where calamity and weather produced a powerful union.

Wayne Schaumburg, a retired Baltimore City teacher who gives talks on the history of the event, agrees that the fire is a tale that does not leave the collective memory.

“When we thought that maybe 50 persons would attend, we had 180,” he said of a recent lecture he gave at the Garrett Jacobs Mansion on Mount Vernon Place.

Schaumburg says one of the fire’s most enduring stories is that of merchant Thomas O’Neill, who fought and prayed to have his North Charles Street fashion house and home linen business spared.

“He refused to allow his building to be dynamited,” Schaumburg said.

As the flames were jumping to nearby properties, O’Neill took blankets from his store’s shelves and stuffed them in the rooftop downspout drainage system. “He opened a water tower on the roof, which flooded it, so that the flying embers could not ignite the building,” Schaumburg said.

“He was smart, but he was also lucky.”

In O’Neill’s case, the winds changed and the store survived until 1954, long after the merchant’s death in 1919. It was his fortune that built the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and Good Samaritan Hospital.

“The reason the fire got out of control was that the wind changed direction two times as a cold front moved through,” Schaumburg said. “The fire did not spread at street level. It spread at the rooftops as the burning embers jumped over Baltimore’s narrow streets.”

Because the fire moved along rooftops, smaller, low-rise structures, such as the banking firm of Alex. Brown & Sons at Calvert and Baltimore streets escaped damage as the higher Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and Continental Trust buildings burned from foyer to roof. Schaumburg estimates the temperature at that corner at 2,000 degrees.

It would be another story a few days after the fire was declared under control. A deep February freeze arrived and killed some members of the Maryland National Guard. The troops camped outdoors in thin tents as they protected banks and businesses from looters. The guardsmen had not been issued warm clothing.

The weather is blamed on the deaths of 17-year-old Pvt. John Unduch, who died of pneumonia on Feb. 20. John V. Richardson, 31, a lieutenant who lived on North Avenue near Barclay Street, died two days later.

Post-fire days in February were brutal. There were 50 pneumonia deaths — unrelated to the fire — in Baltimore the week of Feb. 28. The Chesapeake Bay and harbor froze. Steamboats that normally sailed to Norfolk and other Virginia ports were locked in their piers. By the end of the month, the city water engineer reported that the ground had frozen to a depth of four feet.

One of the myths about the fire was there were no deaths — that because it was a Sunday, downtown was deserted. Not so. The deaths related to the blaze happened later. One firefighter, James Montgomery McGlennen, died in March of pneumonia. He began fighting the blaze Sunday morning and got soaked several times. The Sun reported, “He was determined to stay at his post.”

“Martyr for Public,” read his obituary. He rests at Loudon Park.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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