The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904

The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 was the impetus for tremendous change in the fire and building industries, not just in Baltimore but in many cities. The scope of the fire encompassed approximately 80 blocks of downtown industrial and shopping districts. It brought deep destruction to the city.

The Great Baltimore fire took place in February, 1904. The fire destroyed 1,526 buildings, along with 4 lumber yards. Approximately 1,231 firefighters and 1200 national guardsmen were called in, along with over 2000 soldiers and sailors. The damages totaled $150,000,000. Over 14 miles of fire hose was deployed.

The fire started on a Sunday morning around 10:45 am, when fire fighters received an automatic alarm notification of a fire. The fire began in the basement of the John Hurst building and travelled to the upper floors and sent fire into buildings nearby. Today, the location of the fire’s origin is occupied by the First Baltimore Arena. The Hopkins Savings Bank was the second building to catch on fire. Although several banks were burned, no vaults were penetrated by the fire and no money was lost. The three tallest buildings in Baltimore before the fire were Maryland Trust Company, B&O Railroad and Continental Trust. These buildings were said to glow so brightly while on fire that it could be seen from Washington D.C. and the Eastern Shore. Several hours later, firefighters from surrounding cities began to arrive after an urgent request was sent for help. Due to their fire hoses not matching the hydrants, the non-Baltimore engines were forced to use bay water once the fire spread towards the harbor. The extension of the fire was finally stopped at Jones Falls as 37 engines staged across 5 bridges to stop the fire from reaching East Baltimore. On Monday at 5 PM, the fire was finally under control.  

The great Baltimore fire of 1904 is very significant in the history of the fire service. At the time of the fire, mutual aid assistance was brought to Baltimore from many other fire departments including New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Wilmington. Local county volunteers also responded to help. Fire suppression was severely hampered because the hose and couplings of other departments’ did not fit the fire hydrants in Baltimore. This made their equipment worthless in fighting the fire. The only apparatus that could pump water effectively was Baltimore’s. Up to this point, individual departments’ had resisted any collaboration in making equipment interoperable. Also, manufacturer’s had refused to make universal design for hose and hydrant couplings because they were afraid it would reduce their business transactions. It took a major disaster, the loss of 1500 buildings and 80 blocks, to make people think differently about fire suppression.

Another change that resulted from the fire was the adoption of building codes in Baltimore. Previously, buildings were haphazardly built with disregard for life safety and fire prevention. Because the city had to rebuild the business district, a lot of thought was given to safe building practices. The city also enclosed the water and sewer system. The city also created streets that were wider so that buildings were not so close to each other, and apparatus could navigate the streets unimpeded.

 Baltimore was one of the original big cities when America was becoming a world power, although it was overshadowed by New York and Boston. The Great Baltimore Fire, however, was noticed by all cities in the country, for better and worse. Cities needed to be as compact as possible, and when they were originally built there were no rules or guidelines to follow.

After the fire, many sides were fighting over how to proceed with preventing another disaster as Baltimore had. Cities had to build structures farther apart so fires would not spread, and were forced to standardize their equipment so firefighters from other areas can come to their aid without worrying about hoses that wouldn’t fit. Although some cities do not adhere to these regulations, these rules were a major milestone for fire prevention.