Bill Hoffman's mother always spoke about the blaze as he was growing up, indelibly imprinting the image of a burning metropolis in his mind. So he decided to peel back the layers of history yesterday, driving from Severna Park to downtown Baltimore.
"It was one of the biggest events in her life," said Hoffman, 75, who was born 25 years after the Great Baltimore Fire.
He and scores of others visited the Maryland Historical Society's Baltimore Ablaze: The Great Fire of 1904 exhibit, which included rooms painted a burnt-orange color and full of pictures, remnants from the fire, oral histories and large plaques explaining the disaster and its ruinous effect on the city. The exhibit, which opened to the public yesterday, continues through Oct. 31.
The last smoldering embers were put out a century ago yesterday. The fire scorched more than 70 blocks of the city's downtown, and Hoffman came to Baltimore to learn more about the physical and emotional devastation that rocked the city all those years ago.
The blaze began at 10:48 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 7, and burned for 30 hours until 5 p.m. Monday, Feb. 8. It killed five people and destroyed about 1,500 buildings and 2,500 businesses, including 20 banks, eight hotels, nine newspaper plants, four lumber yards and the Pratt Street wharves. About 35,000 workers were suddenly jobless.
Hoffman's mother, Amelia Tiedeman, was one of the lucky ones. She used to speak to her son about the fire and her firm belief that divine intervention saved her employer, O'Neill's Department Store.
The store miraculously was untouched in the blaze as nearly everything else around it was turned to rubble. Tiedeman, a loyal O'Neill's employee whose parents owned a grocery, worked in the linen department.
When the blaze began that Sunday morning, as many Baltimoreans were in church or on their way to pray, department store owner Thomas O'Neill had an idea.
"O'Neill went to a church and got all these nuns," Hoffman recalled his mother saying. "The fire looked like it was coming their way. They stood outside and prayed until the wind shifted."
Another museum visitor, Andrew Blumberg, 47, who works for the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, was struck by the enormity of the damage.
"When you look at the expanse of it, you realize it was the entire business district," said Blumberg, who lives in Rodgers Forge. "This was such a watershed event."
Part of the exhibit included decades-old taped statements from city residents who witnessed the fire. William Schneidereith was 17 and a junior at City College when he looked up that morning and saw huge flames billowing from downtown buildings.
According to his recollection, recorded in 1970, Schneidereith watched the businesses of three relatives perish in the first hour of the blaze. He retreated home to South Baltimore, sat at the family table and exclaimed, "Oh, all of Baltimore is going to burn down."
His father told him to sit, "calm yourself and eat dinner."
Afterward, he followed his parents to the back room of their three-story home where they watched the destruction of the city's downtown. "I well recall my father's comment to my mother," Schneidereith said on the gravelly recording. "'My God, I'm afraid the kid is right.'"