The fire was reported first in the large wholesale dry goods house of John E. Hurst & Co., located at the corner of Liberty and German streets at 10:48am. It is thought that a still lighted cigar stub or cigarette from the street fell through an open grate into a storeroom filled with dry goods.
Captain Jordan, of the Salvage Corps, whose company was the first on the scene, closely followed by Fifth District Engineer Levin Burkhardt, Engine 15 and Truck 2.
In response to an automated alarm, Captain Kahl of Engine 15 forced entry through a glass door on the German Street side of the building. As the crew was standing on the stairs to the basement, fire rolled across the ceiling and up the open elevator shaft, causing an explosion on the upper floors which was powerful enough to blow the roof off the building.
Flames and burning debris were thrown onto the roofs and through the windows of nearby buildings. Within minutes, eight additional buildings were on fire and threatening to spread to others. Captain Jordan, realising the severity of the situation sent out a general alarm.
Smoke and flames around the Guggenheimer and Wiel Building
Around 1:30 that afternoon the first mutual aid engines began to arrived, 6 from Washington and 4 Philadelphia . A Baltimore Sun editorial from February 9th 1904 says "The detachment of firefighters from the national capital received an ovation when they reached Baltimore."
The Baltimore Sun newspaper is a story in itself, on the night of the fire the building had to be evacuated at around 11pm, after debris and burning embers rained down on the building from the encroaching fire. The editors and printers chartered a train to Washington, where they used the presses of The Washington Star to finish the paper, which was distributed from Camden Station the next morning.
It was discovered that mutual aid engines hose couplings would not fit Baltimore’s fire hydrants, (despite calls by the board of fire underwriters, there was still more than 600 different sizes and variations of fire hose couplings still being used by various fire services throughout America.) so they were wrapped with canvas. The resulting loss of water pressure greatly reduced their effectiveness on the fires.
At 7pm, with a high wind from the southwest fanning the flames, it was taking 400 hoses just to try and keep up with the fire. With several fire engines also put out of action due to flying timbers from explosions, it was decided that drastic action was needed to stem the fire.
It was decided to use dynamite to demolish the surrounding buildings as a means of stopping the spread of fire. The first property dynamited was that of John Duer & Son on Charles Street, south of German Street (now redwood street) and the Schwab Bros. Building, on the southwest corner of Charles and German Streets, JW Putts and Co at Charles and Fayette and then the daily record building .This attempt to create a firebreak failed and the fire continued to spread east and west along Baltimore street.
Heroic efforts were also seen at the Anderson and Ireland Hardware Store, located near Pratt and Charles Streets which was in danger of blowing up. Because of the large amount of gunpowder stored there, firemen poured water on the building until the fire ended late Monday afternoon.
Militia crowd control
The militia (4 & 5 regiments) had by this time been ordered out, and a cordon was formed about the burned district by Brigadier General Riggs. By midnight more than 2,000 soldiers and sailors were on duty in the fire district to deal with the crowds of spectators. They were joined later in the night by 150 policemen brought in from Philadelphia.
Around 8 pm B&O Railroad and Continental Trust Company, Baltimore's tallest building, was ablaze, along with much of the financial district. Fire leaped hundreds of feet into the air and could be seen from more than 100 miles away in Virginia and Pennsylvania and as far away as Washington, D.C.
After midnight and into the next day a cold wind blowing at 25 mph moved the fire east to southeast. Embers blown from the western edge of the fire started another, at the Maryland Institute Association of Mechanical Arts, and grew up around Market and Water Street, this was 5 blocks east of the main fire. Burning embers also fell on the Front Street Theatre, 1/2 a mile from the fire, and at the City Hospital doctors went to the roof to extinguish falling embers.
During the early morning hours, additional engines from Washington and Philadelphia were joined by fire companies from York, Chester, Harrisburg, and Altoona.
Sometime around 3am 150 barrels of whiskey stored in a building on Hanova sq exploded sending burning debris flying over the surrounding area. The explosions set alight two engines and crushing another under falling masonry. The fire crews manning the engines had to flee the area to avoid being crushed by falling walls from the now unstable buildings.
Around 5.30 am the fires were spreading among the lumber yards along Union dock. The firefighters rallied and by 6am mutual aid engines, primarily from Philadelphia, made a stand at Pratt and Light Streets. Their efforts saved the buildings and piers along Light Street, and south of Pratt street. This prevented the fire from reaching Federal Hill and the rest of South Baltimore.
Along the wharves that lined Pratt Street fire engines lined the piers,taking water directly from the harbor in a desperate effort to save the docks. However, the ferocity of the fire drove them from the area. Some units were temporarily trapped by surrounding fire but managed to later escape.By 8 am, the fight to save the Pratt Street piers was lost as flames spread south and east of Pratt Street, The firefighters pulled back to make a stand along the east side of the 75 foot wide Jones Falls.
Starting at 11am nine engines from New York City, and two from Wilmington were placed along the Jones Falls. These were joined by a further of 37 steam fire engines stationed at Baltimore Street south and the fire boat Cataract, under Captain German, together they established a wall of water to halt the advancing flames.The fire was a last under control, it had burned for thirty hours and been fought by 1,231 firefighters, 57 Engines, 9 Trucks, 2 Hose Companies, 1 Fire Boat, 1 Police Boat, several Tug Boats and volunteers from several fire companies. A total of 1,526 Buildings were destroyed covering 80 city blocks of the business district of Baltimore.
All pictures are from the Library of Congress and the American National Photograph Album.