The February when fire devoured downtown


LAST SUNDAY I arrived downtown in a snowstorm and departed in a stunning show of sunlight that presaged an early spring. Standing that day at Baltimore and Eutaw streets, I began taking in some of the 19th-century buildings that stood on the safe (west) side of the Baltimore Fire of Feb. 7-8, 1904.

In that moment, I was reminded of the temperamental weather and wind conditions that reports said doomed the old commercial city that Sunday and Monday nearly 101 years ago. I call these swings of wind and mercury Baltimore Fire weather.

Not so long ago, I had a chance to read Peter B. Petersen's book, The Great Baltimore Fire, published by the Maryland Historical Society in time for the fire centennial. In it, I learned what I'd long suspected; the fire, which began near where the 1st Mariner Arena stands today, got going in a warehouse stuffed with spring goods, got fanned by February winds and soon overwhelmed the city's ability to deal with a crisis. The fire jumped from building to building, encouraged by that changeable wind.

The great minds of firefighting, circa 1904, all had their own ideas on what should have been done. The out-of-town fire companies who came to Baltimore's aid pointed toward us for a botched job - and praised their efforts. Sometimes, we had ourselves to blame - when the National Guard was called out, the keys to the 4th and 5th Regiment Armory doors couldn't be found; finally the city's secret riot call had to be sounded - the old bell atop the city hall dome was rung repeatedly.

As in any disaster story, the best nuggets are in the details. I found myself smiling at the account of the fire-related explosion of the J.W. Putts "Glass Palace" store, a fancy wares emporium that offered china and other household items. Many a Thanksgiving table at my old Guilford Avenue home was set with Putts' Limoges plates and O'Neill's table linen.

Petersen told me this week how delighted he was to locate a photo showing two men atop the once fabled O'Neill's department store. When he first found the picture, he thought the figures were not much more than a smudge. Enlarged, the photo reveals two men, attired in derby hats, repairing damage at the store's cornice. That O'Neill's escaped the flames remains a Baltimore legend.

The out-of-town newspapers jumped on the story of the Baltimore Fire and gave Petersen fresh sets of perspectives. New York Times reporters also boarded the special-run Jersey Central-Baltimore and Ohio Railroad train that departed Jersey City and accompanied the 10 fire companies from Manhattan that came to Baltimore. There were also eight from Philadelphia and five from Washington, the first to arrive and cheered by a mob at Camden Station.

It was the New Yorkers who arrived on the second day of the fire and helped hold the fire line at the Jones Falls. The flames did jump into Southeast Baltimore and what is now the high-priced Inner Harbor East waterfront, but there were fresh troops from the other cities (Atlantic City, Altoona, Chester, Harrisburg, Trenton, Alexandria came too, among many) who held the line and put out the leaping, wind-driven embers.

Of course, the ardent prayers from our Little Italy neighborhood, which would have been the next to go, didn't hurt. One of the New York firefighters, Mark Kelly, died of pneumonia after returning home.

A scrappy stray Baltimore dog who guided the New Yorkers' horses pulling their pumpers in Baltimore got carried back to Manhattan as a fire mascot.

A few days later, the reporters who covered the story arrived at the engine house with a fresh dog collar, "decorated with brass studs" and inscribed, "A waif from the flames." Petersen reports that the newly named "Baltimore wagged his stub of a tail, showing them that he, too, wore a harness."

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