Memories of loss, inspiration

A century later almost to the moment, Mayor Martin O'Malley, Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. and other city fire officials commemorated yesterday the day a fearsome blaze began burning down vast swaths of downtown Baltimore.

The outdoor centennial ceremony on Hopkins Place marked the time - 10:48 a.m. - that the fire began Feb. 7, 1904, by re-enacting telegraph messages sent to signal boxes in the city. The signals calling for all firefighters to report for duty were translated into English for those not versed in Morse code.


Yesterday's observance near where the Great Fire broke out took place in cold, windy weather, but not as frigid as the 7-degree day that changed the city's face. As O'Malley noted, even the fierce wind yesterday was whipping the same easterly way it did 100 years ago.

O'Malley, a history buff, put a positive spin on the disaster, which destroyed the oldest part of the city, but spared two of Baltimore's most important buildings, City Hall and the Basilica of the Assumption. He emphasized that a new city rose out of the ruins and ashes.


"This celebration is not about devastation," the mayor said, "but the resurrection of the city and the triumph of the indomitable human spirit."

The mayor continued, "What we inherit from those flames of fire is the resilient, valiant spirit of the fire service and those who rebuilt the city brick by brick."

But Goodwin, whose father and grandfather also were Baltimore firefighters, had a more sober view of that day in 1904.

"They looked at it as a defeat, so they didn't talk about it much," Goodwin said.

The night before, Goodwin said, he had read through the account of his counterpart George Horton, Baltimore's fire chief in 1904.

"What you take away is loss," Goodwin said. "They lost the battle and great portions of the city."

Period accounts show the department was equipped with 25 engine companies and 10 fire trucks, with a paid force of firefighters, Goodwin said.

But the force wasn't enough to quell the fire that started at John E. Hurst & Co., a wholesale dry-goods business. The department sent to Washington, Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del., for help in conquering the blaze. A strategy to use dynamite to stop the path of the fire backfired badly. In the end, the Jones Falls provided a natural cutoff to the fire's march.


Chicago's great fire of 1871 - started by Mrs. O'Leary's cow, according to folklore - created a mythology about that city's can-do spirit. Baltimore City historian Frank R. Shivers Jr. has noted that Baltimore did not rebuild in as sweeping a fashion as Chicago, or San Francisco after its earthquake and fire in 1906.

Yesterday's gathering, which featured the music of a bagpiper, took place outside the skyscraper Mercantile Bank and Trust Building, a short distance from the harbor. The surrounding concrete square and busy cityscape were evidence that time had obliterated almost all of the visible scars of the Great Fire.

After the observance ended, a parade of fire engines went to the City Fire Museum at Gay and Orleans streets for an open house. Last night, the Maryland Historical Society opened its "Baltimore Ablaze" exhibition, which continues through Oct. 31.

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