This month’s item—a stack of charred paper—might not look like much, but it represents what was perhaps the worst disaster in Baltimore’s long history.
Most people have heard of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the San Francisco Fire of 1906, but the lesser-known 1904 Baltimore Fire ranks as the third worst conflagration in United States history. Raging over the course of two days—February 7th and 8th—the blaze destroyed over 1,500 buildings in central Baltimore. The fire began at a dry goods warehouse on what is now Redwood Street, just blocks northwest of the Inner Harbor. Despite attempts to halt the fire’s spread by dynamiting buildings in the path of the blaze, damage extended south to the harbor, east to Jones Falls, north to Fayette Street and west to Liberty Street. Overall, some 140 acres were destroyed, although only one life was lost. Some firefighters later died of pneumonia brought about as a result of fighting the fire (Heilner 2004). While reports in the Baltimore Sun estimated that property loss would range between $50 to $80 million dollars, the damage actually came in between $100 and 150 million.
The severity of the situation was realized quickly and within thirty minutes of the blaze being detected, every piece of firefighting equipment in the city had been deployed. Two engines arrived by train from Washington DC after the hasty dispatch of a telegram requesting assistance (Baltimore Sun 1904a). Other units from surrounding locales also rushed to help battle the blaze and the Maryland National Guard and law enforcement officers from Philadelphia and New York helped maintain order and security. After 30 hours, the fire was finally brought under control by 5 pm on February 8th.
Within days of the fire, the pages of the Baltimore Sun were filled with large advertisements from insurance companies and building contractors, seeking to help businesses and citizens with the work of rebuilding the city. City services, like streetcars, telephones and telegraphs, were restored quickly, and the excitement generated by the disaster settled into the hard work of creating a safer and more fireproof Baltimore.
The portions of the city impacted by the fire became known as the “burnt district” (Baltimore Sun 1904b) and in March of 1904, the Maryland General Assembly established a Burnt District Commission (Digital Maryland). The commission was given broad powers to improve and rebuild the city through the removal of burned buildings, the widening and straightening streets, and the establishment of market spaces and public squares (Maryland State Archives 2015). The commission was in operation until 1907. As a result of the fire, new building codes that called for fireproof materials were established. The General Assembly also established the Citizens’ Relief Committee, which was given a fund of $250,000 for disbursement to citizens who had lost property in the fire.
Any archaeological excavations occurring in portions of the city affected by the fire uncover evidence of the disaster. Work at the harbor revealed that demolition debris from destroyed buildings was used as fill in early twentieth-century wharf construction and repair. Archaeologists working at the Baltimore Metro Shot Tower Subway Station Project (18BC66) uncovered the brick foundation and cellar of a building that had been a dry and wet goods store from the late eighteenth century until the fire. The lowest levels of the cellar contained melted medicine bottles and charred foodstuffs from Reiter & Co., the grocery in operation there at the time of the 1904 fire. Charred plant remains included what appeared to have been bags of rye grain, peas, rice and coffee. The burned paper was also discovered at the store.
A large number of burned items recovered from the Reiter & Co. store are on display in the Metro Shot Tower Subway station. For further reading about the fire, see Harold A. Williams, Baltimore Afire (Baltimore: Schneidereth and Sons, 1954); and James B. Crooks, “The Baltimore Fire and Baltimore Reform”, Maryland Historical Magazine 65 (Spring 1970): 1- 17.
Baltimore Sun. 1904a Twenty-four Blocks Burned in the Heart of Baltimore. Baltimore Sun. February 8, 1904.
Baltimore Sun. 1904b City’s Recovery from Great Blow is Rapid. Baltimore Sun. February 14, 1904, p. 16.
Digital Maryland. Burnt District Commission Report, September 11, 1904. Enoch Pratt Free Library. https://collections.digitalmaryland.org/digital/collection/mdbf/id/1086
Heilner, Alexander. 2004. The Great Baltimore Fire. https://heilner.net/projects/the-great-baltimore-fire/
Maryland State Archives. 2015 Baltimore City Archives; Burnt District Commission. Maryland State Archives. http://guide.msa.maryland.gov/pages/series.aspx?id=BRG17