The Great Baltimore Fire


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.

Figure 1. A stack of burned paper from Reiter & Company store, recovered during archaeological excavations at the Shot Tower Metro site (18BC66). 

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.

Figure 2. Front page of the Baltimore Sun on February 8, 1904, printed when the fire was not yet under control.

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.   

Figure 3. Graphic showing extent of Baltimore fire, screen capture taken from YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCxUG65HGsc

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.

Figure 4. Aftermath of the 1904 fire.

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.

References

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

Civil War Medicine—Not Just About Treating Battle Injuries


This post, which features a brass syringe found in a privy in Baltimore, anticipates April 2021’s Maryland Archeology Month, with its theme of medical care in archaeology. The syringe was found in a mid-nineteenth century context, corresponding nicely with similarly dated examples in museum collections.


Figure 1.  Clyster syringe from the Metro Shot Tower site (18BC66) in Baltimore.  One of the mid-19th century residents at this site was a physician. 

Known as a clyster, this syringe was not used with a needle. Instead, the cylinder would be filled with medicinal powders, which could be injected into wounds (Dammann 1983).  A standard component in Civil War era physicians’ kits, clysters were also used to treat venereal diseases (NPS n.d.). The term clyster comes from an archaic word meaning “enema” and larger versions of these syringes were used to administer enemas.

As the site of numerous battles during the Civil War, including its deadliest one day battle at Antietam, Maryland was the site of a number of Civil War hospitals. These hospitals ranged from large complexes constructed specifically to serve as medical facilities (Figure 2), to barns, homes and other buildings repurposed as needed. When most readers think of Civil War hospitals, they probably envision treating gunshot wounds and performing amputations as being the most common tasks for these medical professionals. Physicians and nursing staff at these facilities, however, had a wider range of challenges facing them.


Figure 2. Hicks U.S. Genl. Hospital, Baltimore, Md.  Library of Congress.

Deaths from diseases far outnumbered fatalities caused by battle-related injuries. Recent statistical revisions have increased the overall number of war fatalities from 618,000 to 752,000 (Hacker 2011) and some scholars place deaths from diseases as accounting for as many as two thirds of the fatalities (Foote 1958:1040; Dammann 1983). Typhoid, malaria, chronic diarrhea and dysentery (Figure 3), all caused by unsanitary conditions and exposure to disease-carrying insects, were major killers, felling almost 102,000 men (Burns 2021). One of the medical advances made during the Civil War was the use of quinine in treating malaria (Reilly 2016). Many soldiers, particularly from isolated rural areas, encountered childhood diseases like measles and mumps for the first time in the crowded conditions of the camps and trenches (Burns 2021).


Figure 3. Chronic Dysentery, Aaron Parker, Co D 1st Maine Cavalry.  Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive. 

Infections from delayed or improperly cleaned wounds were also a big concern – and development of antimicrobial drugs was still many decades in the future.  Some commonly employed medicines actually caused more harm than good (Reilly 2016).   

In our current public health crisis, many of us have had to practice quarantining as we were either diagnosed with Covid, or were symptomatic.  We can credit Civil War physicians with figuring out the value of isolating patients with communicable diseases; during the war they were able to effectively control yellow fever through the practice of quarantining (Reilly 2016).

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine, located in Frederick, Maryland, is a great place to visit to learn more about medicine and medical practices during this conflict. 

References

Burns, Stanley. 2021.  Diseases.  Behind the Lens:  A History in Pictures.  Mercy Street. Public Broadcasting Service. Website accessed on January 28, 2021 at http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/uncover-history/behind-lens/disease/#:~:text=Before%20war%20in%20the%20twentieth,was%20probably%20closer%20to%20750%2C000.

Dammann, Gordon.  1983.  Pictorial Encyclopedia of Civil War Medical Instruments and Equipment.  Volume I. Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana.

Foote, Shelby. 1958. The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 3. New York: Random House,     

Gugliotta, Guy.  2012.  New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll.  New York Times, April 2, 2012. Website accessed on January 28, 2021 at https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/civil-war-toll-up-by-20-percent-in-new-estimate.html#:~:text=For%20110%20years%2C%20the%20numbers,any%20war%20in%20American%20history.

Hacker JD. 2011. A census-based count of the Civil War dead. Civil War History. 57:307–348.  

National Park Service. Syringes.  Vicksburg National Military Park. Museum Management Program. Website accessed on January 28, 2021 at https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/vick/LifeAboard/medicalEquipment/VICK1147_1146_1148_450_451_1145_syringe.html

Reilly, Robert F. 2016.  Medical and surgical care during the American Civil War, 1861–1865. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2016 Apr; 29(2): 138–142. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4790547/#B2

E. Sasche & Co. 1864. Hicks U.S. Genl. Hospital, Baltimore, Md. / Wm. Q. Caldwell, Jun. architect.  E. Sachse & Co., Baltimore.