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Carroll County Times
Carroll County Lifestyles

Kevin Dayhoff: A look back a the July 1938 Smith & Reifsnider fire

Over 80 years ago, Carroll County was still reeling from the aftermath of fireworks of an unwelcome variety – the July 3, 1938 Smith & Reifsnider fire on John Street, one of the largest fires in the county’s history.

Ironically, today, the property where the fire occurred has been occupied by the Westminster Volunteer Fire Department since Oct. 24, 1998.

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Firefighters, firefighting equipment and an ambulance are shown in this 1932 Westminster Fire Engine and Hose Co. No. 1 photograph from when the firehouse was located at 66 E. Main St. Many of the firefighters and much of the equipment displayed in this photograph may have been involved in the July 3, 1938, Smith & Reifsnider fire. Photograph courtesy of the Dayhoff-Babylon family and the Westminster Fire Dept.

Five days after the fire, the Democratic Advocate newspaper carried a front-page story with descending headlines: “The Blaze Was of Incendiary Origin–Fear Was Entertained That the Fire Would Go To Main Street, But Was Confined to the Yard--16 Fire Departments With 19 Pieces of Apparatus Poured Tons of Water on the Blaze and Was Conquered After Three Hours’ Battle–Several Firemen Overcome–Chief Brown and All Firemen Are commended for Their Heroic Accomplishment–The Loss is Heaviest in the County’s History.”

The first paragraph of the news article immediately shows the concern of the community. It read, “Westminster citizens had the scare of their life time Saturday night when a fire from an incendiary origin was discovered in the lumber yard of Smith & Reifsnider, which caused an undetermined loss, but estimated at $125,000.”

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Local residents inspect the ruins of the lumber yard after the July 3, 1938, Smith & Reifsnider fire on John Street. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Carroll County

According to a recent article on the Historical Society of Carroll County’s Facebook page, “Everything was fine when the watchman made his rounds at 11:00 (July 2, 1938.) But, at around 11:45 p.m. an alarm was received for a fire at the Smith & Reifsnider Lumber Company, behind Main Street, just off Railroad Avenue.”

I first researched the fire in 2008 and wrote about it on July 3, 2008 for the Baltimore Sun. A portion of this article was published at that time. The recent article by the Historical Society, however, provided some great additions to the story.

The first fire alarm was sounded by night watchman John Baile, and the Westminster Volunteer Fire Department dispatched two pieces of firefighting equipment.

The fire department chief at the time was Leroy Brown. He immediately put in a call for additional help. Firefighters from Union Bridge, Hampstead, Manchester, Taneytown, Pleasant Valley, Sykesville, Emmitsburg, Catonsville, Reisterstown, Owings Mills, Glyndon, and Pikesville responded.

Union Bridge arrived in 14 minutes; slightly before Reisterstown, “who also broke all records for speed.” The newspaper estimated that more than 200 volunteers fought the flames.

The article was meticulous in reporting where each piece of firefighting apparatus obtained water. Hampstead arrived with two trucks which hooked up at the railroad and Cover’s Stock Yards. Manchester “coupled up at Klee’s Garage...”

According to the recent article on the fire by the Historical Society, “A number of the companies brought two trucks and, combined with Westminster’s trucks, made it possible to have 18 or 19 hose lines in service with about 18,000 feet of hose in use. Every fire hydrant on Main street from the first block of East Main street to the ‘Forks’ on West Main Street …”

Chief Brown was praised for “his masterly generalship” in bringing the fire, “which was a raging furnace,” under control by 3 a.m., according to the Democratic Advocate.

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The smoldering remains of the lumber yard after the July 3, 1938, Smith and Reifsnider fire on John Street. The steeple of St. John Catholic Church can be seen in the background. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Carroll County

“A high wind kept blowing the debris over the city and fear was entertained for the buildings in its path, but citizens protected their homes and buildings by pouring water on the roofs.”

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The Historical Society reports, “Almost 200 volunteer firefighters fought the blaze… Two freight trains of the Western Maryland Railroad were halted at Cranberry for about an hour because of firehoses which had been stretched across the tracks to reach fire hydrants. One man was arrested when he ran his car over a line of hose.

“The office, the lumber sheds in the rear of the office, the buildings and contents of the sheds near the railroad, and the coal sheds escaped the conflagration. Seven large delivery trucks were saved. A brisk wind carried sparks and small pieces of burning wood for long distances, but fortunately did not start other fires.

The layout of the Smith-Reifsnider Lumber Company as shown in the 1927 Sanborn map of Westminster. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Carroll County

“The exact cause of the fire isn’t known but around 10:30 a number of people on John street heard the explosion of fireworks near where the fire started, which was in the part of a shed filled with kiln-dried cypress shingles that could easily have been set on fire by the smoldering remains of a large exploded fire cracker. There was also speculation that the fire was deliberate as some neighbors reported hearing the sounds of ‘the handling of lumber’ and an explosion was plainly heard. It seemed unlikely that the fire could have spread so rapidly in such a short time unless fed by some flammable materials.”

The Maryland State Police “were rushed to the scene immediately to handle the traffic… The crowd was estimated at about 5,000 that watched the firemen from the railroad tracks and surrounding points.”

At the time the company was solely owned by Mr. John L. Reifsnider, Jr. According to the article, Reifsnider fed the firefighters “sandwiches and coffee at the American Restaurant after the fire was brought under control.”

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Fortunately, the only fireworks witnessed by thousands this past weekend were at the Carroll County Farm Museum. To this day, however, the constant vigilance and protection of emergency responders remains the same. As you celebrated our nation’s birthday over the weekend, hopefully you kept the future of our great nation and the selfless public servants who protect us in your prayers.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.


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