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Fire and water have often combusted in Baltimore’s harbor and streams

The 18-alarm fire in Canton in February 1953 raged through lumber yards, marine repair yards and canning operations.
The 18-alarm fire in Canton in February 1953 raged through lumber yards, marine repair yards and canning operations. (HANS MARX/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

The smoky and sweet-smelling Domino Sugar plant fire in Locust Point had the characteristics of an old-fashioned Baltimore harborside blaze. It had billowing smoke, water cascades from fire boats and dangerous flames. It also captured a lot of attention on a gentle spring day.

Violent and dramatic fires seemed to be drawn to Baltimore’s harbor and the industries that once clung to its wharves.

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By the middle of the day on Feb. 17, 1953, announcers at the city’s commercial radio stations were asking that all fire personnel not already on the scene of a massive Canton inferno along Boston Street get to work, fast.

A fire raged through lumber yards, marine repair yards and canning operations along the street.

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Canton residents flocked outdoors to watch the wind-whipped fireball erupt along the edge of the harbor.

The Sun later said the blaze was started by a worker using an acetylene torch to repair an oil barge in the yard of the Chesapeake Marine Railway Co. at Philpot and Point streets.

Vessels in Baltimore’s busy harbor swung into action. The Coast Guard brought up cutters from Curtis Bay, and tugs from Baker-Whiteley and Curtis Bay Towing joined the city’s fire boats.

“Within a matter of minutes, 15 [craft] were on the scene and pulling out scows, carfloats, barges and tugboats, some of which were beginning to blaze,” The Sun said.

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Workers fled the old Continental Can Co. plant and the J.S Young licorice extract firm as flames touched these factories and acrid smoke filled their halls. The fire jumped Boston Street and ignited the Baltimore Lumber Company property. By the end of the day it was reduced to cinders and ash. Somehow, $40,000 in a safe escaped harm.

This incident prompted comparisons with other watery blazes. What was worse?

On a hot July 2, 1922, lightning struck a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad grain elevator at Locust Point near Fort McHenry. The old fort’s grounds were covered still by World War I-era hospital buildings.

“At the hospital were about 400 disabled veterans who had to be evacuated as fast as army and police ambulances could remove them from wards,” The Sun reported. The veterans were hauled to Public School 76 nearby.

“The grain elevators looked like fiery furnaces as the steel in the walls curled to white-hot sheets and dropped to the ground,” said a fire department history. Tugboats darted around the grain piers and narrowly missed the collapsing walls.

A convenient thunderstorm helped firefighters extinguish the blaze at what is now high-end residences at Silo Point.

The next major event involved the Jones Falls when it literally caught fire. On June 8, 1926, discarded crankcase oil floating in sewers under the Fallsway ignited, “sending a 40-foot wall of flame down the stream and blowing the lids off manhole covers all the way from Baltimore to Madison streets,” The Sun reported.

On Jan. 16, 1951, a federal ammunition pier at Hawkins Point burst into flame. A curious maritime relic, the liner George Washington, was destroyed by flames.

The ship, built in Germany by the North German Lloyd line, was once the third-largest passenger steamship in the world. It was among the vessels in the North Atlantic that radioed ice warnings the night the Titanic sunk.

The George Washington saw duty as a troop carrier in both world wars but had to be scrapped after the 1951 fire.

One of Baltimore’s last major harbor blazes was the April 14, 1988, burning of the Autoline Lubricants, the Lacy Foundry and the adjacent Atlantic Mill and Lumber Co. on South Caroline street in Fells Point. News reports said volatile liquids that periodically exploded from the intense heat were hurled into the air.

Today the site, redeveloped as Harbor Point, contains some of the city’s most valuable real estate.

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