Remembering The Day When Baltimore Burned

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — It was one of the great fire disasters in U.S. history, and it happened right here in Baltimore.

Alex DeMetrick reports, 110 years ago Friday, much of downtown Baltimore burned to the ground.

The downtown Baltimore of today is built on the ashes of what burned 110 years ago. Starting on the morning of Feb. 7, 1904, fire raged through the city’s business district.

Where it started is known. How it started is not.

“It was a big dry goods house, so there were all kinds of stuff stored in there that could have spontaneously combusted,” said Francis O’Neill, Maryland Historical Society.

O’Neill is the reference librarian at the Maryland Historical Society, where there is a small display of the fire that raged for two days. It was so hot, it melted nails into a lumpy ball as fire spread block after block.

“They tried everything to keep the sparks from blowing from one building to another,” O’Neill said.

WJZ’s media partner, The Baltimore Sun, has an Internet slideshow of the devastation. More than 1,500 structures were damaged or destroyed.

In U.S. history, only the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 were larger.

But unlike those disasters, no one died in Baltimore. The Jones Falls stopped it before it could reach crowded residential neighborhoods.

“It was just a miracle really that all those houses were spared,” said O’Neill.

Fire companies from as far away as Philadelphia rushed to help, but were stopped cold at Baltimore’s hydrants.

“Because they couldn’t couple their hoses to the fire hydrants in Baltimore,” O’Neill said.

It was a lesson the nation learned in February 1904. Today, firefighters use the same standardized equipment from state to state.

The Great Fire also left a lasting local change to Baltimore. Streets like Pratt and Charles were widened after 1904 to create urban firebreaks.

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