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Diary of a disaster


THE DIARY OF my grandmother, Mary Gresham Machen, painstakingly maintained every day from 1890 until her death in 1931, records many perceptive comments about the Baltimore scene over the years. But few are more poignant than her report of the Great Fire of 1904.

Her husband, Arthur W. Machen, was the first of three Baltimore lawyers in succession to bear that name. They lived in a spacious house at 217 W. Monument St., now the site of the Maryland Historical Society on the crest of Mount Vernon hill with a commanding view of the city to the south and east.

The eldest son, Arthur (my father), was a young lawyer who shared the household with his parents and younger brother. The two lawyers also shared law offices in the Central Savings Bank Building on the corner of Charles and Lexington streets.

My grandmother's diary entries for Feb. 7 through Feb. 9, 1904, which have never been published, are taken verbatim from the original text. The spelling style has been retained to reflect the times.

Sunday, Feb. 7

A memorable day. All had gone to Church & I was talking to the Dr. when I heard an explosion followed by fire-engines. Soon afterwards I looked out of my back windows & saw apparently three blocks afire. From that time on we could think of nothing but the fire. Arthur came in at two and said the office was directly in its track and took Wm [the butler] & a wagon to save some books. My husband went to help him. We got dinner a little before four, then all went out again.

As night descended, the spectacle presented was appalling - the heavens lighted up with brilliant yellow & clouds of copper-colored smoke rolling in front - the angry flames licking out fiercely. I was utterly exhausted by eleven o'cl. and, as many of mine were watching, I went to bed, knowing that a change of wind would bring the terrible destroyer to our homes. I collected my little store of jewels & laid out my street dress & rolled into bed so tired I hardly cared what happened, & so, praying for all in stress or suffering, fell asleep - Sunday night.

Monday, Feb. 8

[The above entry for Feb. 7 was continued in the space for Feb. 8.]

Tuesday, Feb. 9

On Monday the fire was still raging fiercely but farther off. To our great surprise & joy the Cent. Sav. Bank Bldg. is not burned - so that the office is safe. Towards nightfall the fire under control. On Tues. I was able to go out for the first time. Arthur took me to the edge of the burned district but I could not see much. The street cars not running - so I went into Hutzler's & telephoned for a coupe to take me home. At night, Arthur read aloud Samuel Pepys' account of the Great Fire of London in September 1666.

Arthur W. Machen Jr., a partner in a Baltimore law firm before his retirement in 1995, lives in Towson.

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