It was 108 years ago today that Baltimore just about burnt to the ground. They called it The Great Baltimore Fire, and while not as well known as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, it did manage to make it’s way into song. Which is why, you may be wondering, I’m writing about it here.
The fire started simple enough in the basement of the John E. Hurst dry goods store. At about 11am the local fire teams responded to the alarms. What seemed to Fire Chief George Horton to be a routine fire call (fires were very common occurrences in cities of this era), quickly turned out not to be. Fire shot up the elevator shaft of the John E. Hurst building (pictured) causing an explosion that tore the roof off the sucka and shot giant flaming embers into the surrounding buildings. The fire was spreading fast. Chief Horton had called in every fire fighter in Baltimore but it was too late, the fire was now beyond the control of Baltimore’s fire departments.
As the surrounding building burned and the wind spread the fire further across Baltimore, calls were sent to D.C. and other nearby cities for support. The first engines from D.C. arrived around 1:30 but they were useless. The couplings for the hydrants in Baltimore were not the same as the ones used in D.C. Their hoses would not fit. As more support arrived they tried wrapping canvas around the couplings as sort of a jerry rigged coupling but this proved largely ineffective. The fire continued to rage.
At around 5 it was decided that the only way to contain the fire was to literally fight fire with fire. Or dynamite to be more specific. I guess I don’t need to tell you how that went. Let’s just say it didn’t do it’s intended thing. Luckily for the city however, the wind had switched directions before the fire had taken over city hall…and in the process ruining someone’s hope of blowing it up with dynamite. Around this time engines from Philadelphia began to arrive and give some much needed support. The fire continued to spread on through the night and into the next day.
By the next morning the firefighters had slowed the spread of the fire by pumping water from the harbor, but the wind picked up and the fire soon pushed them back further burning piers, buildings and trapping some of the fire teams. The fire was finally stopped when a total of 37 steam fire engines, some from as far away as New York City and Delaware, were able to pump water from the small Jones Falls river reducing the fire to a smolder by 3pm. In little over 28 hours, the city had been near gutted by fire. It was reported that over 140 acres of buildings in Baltimore were consumed by the fire. Though the property loss was high, there were no lives lost to the fire. This is likely due to the fire starting on a Sunday morning while most were at church. A few aid workers who were helping to fight the fire died of illnesses such as pneumonia and tuberculosis likely caused by fighting the fire in the cold and wet. Shortly after the fire, a nationwide standard regarding hydrant couplings and fire hoses was enacted.
Like most great disasters of the day, a song was written, and that song was called Baltimore Fire. First recorded by noted rounder, rambler, banjo player and singer Charlie Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers in 1929, it is not known who originally wrote the song (as is the case for many songs in the folk tradition.) What is known is that the song is a re-write (also a folk tradition) of a now long forgotten song called The Boston Fire that Charlie had found while searching for songs to record for their 9th recording session. He and the band had already recorded over 90 songs by that point and inspiration this day came from a 1905 songbook called Mowry’s Songster.
More pictures and info about the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 can be found on this site with it’s great interactive map (where I got most of this info), you can view the historical marker here, and more info on Charlie Poole can be found in the book Rambling Blues: The Life and Songs of Charlie Poole (where most of this info about Charlie Poole came from)
As a bonus, here is a decidedly more modern song from Baltimore’s own J. Roddy Walston and The Business who dream of burning fair Baltimore the beautiful city down once again