Ninety years ago this morning, approximately on the spot where Walt Disney's World on Ice is currently performing at the Baltimore Arena, somebody dropped a cigarette. Twenty-four hours later, most of downtown Baltimore was gone.
Yesterday, a few dozen firefighters and fire buffs gathered beside the arena to commemorate the great fire of 1904, a wind-whipped catastrophe that tore the heart out of the city, leveling 140 acres and 1,500 buildings.
"It's the history of Baltimore, and the younger generation doesn't know about it," said Francis A. Kemper, 73, a retired Baltimore firefighter who planned yesterday's ceremony. "Forgetting your city's history is like forgetting your family."
A "re-enactment" -- not of the fire but of the first reports -- was organized by the Box 414 Association, a fire buffs club that provides coffee and support to firefighters on the job. Box 414 is named for the fire box at the the corner of Howard and German streets -- the latter renamed Redwood during World War I -- where the third alarm was sounded.
Yesterday, a symbolic Box 414 was pulled by Baltimore Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., who rode up in a horse-drawn cart. An assortment of other fire equipment arrived, sirens wailing, but the oldest was a 1944 Mack pumper.
"With a fire of that magnitude, fought with antique apparatus, they did pretty well," said Ed Schwartz, a Baltimore County firefighter and curator of the Baltimore City Fire Museum.
The fire, first reported at 10:48 a.m. Feb, 7, was touched off when a lighted cigarette fell through a hole in the sidewalk into blankets and debris in the basement of John E. Hurst & Co., a dry-goods business on German between Liberty Street and Hopkins Place, on the current site of the arena.
It spread rapidly across the city, blown by shifting winds as strong as 30 miles an hour. By late evening, the skyscrapers around Baltimore and Calvert streets -- including some advertised as "fireproof" -- were blazing torches, and the temperature at the intersection reached an estimated 2,500 degrees.
The fire was stopped about 5 p.m. Feb. 8 as it moved east at the Jones Falls, where 37 fire engines were gathered for a last stand.