The face of human history is sparsely freckled with events that can only be described as miraculous. One of these true miracles is the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904.
In the early part of the 20th century, fires would often ravish entire cities, claiming thousands of lives and reducing buildings to piles of smoldering rubble. This was due to many factors including primitive firefighting equipment and non-existent housing codes. Firefighting at the time was an imperfect science. Each city had it’s own practices, procedures, and equipment. This unstandardized system contributed to much confusion and inefficiency. For instance, in 1903, there were over 600 different sizes of fire hose couplings in the United States alone. This meant that the equipment used by one city’s firefighters often differed drastically in comparison to another city’s equipment. The result was that firefighters from neighboring communities were of little help in battling an enormous blaze.
On the morning of February 7th, 1904, fire had been reported at a local business. This fire quickly spread, and calls for assistance were made to firefighters as far away as Washington and Philadelphia. Upon arriving to the scene, it was evident that the equipment brought to Baltimore was not compatible with the local equipment. Hoses could not fit into the hydrants, and since there a lack of standardized equipment and procedures, firemen could only stare in helpless horror as high winds stoked the frightening flames beyond their control.
The fire raged for thirty hours, laying waste to 70 city blocks. Over 1,500 buildings were destroyed, resulting in damages in excess of 150 million dollars. 35,000 people became unemployed. Over 1,200 firefighters fought the blaze, with a force of 57 trucks assembled from fire companies from Philadelphia, Wilmington, Atlantic City, and Washington. 130 firefighters from New York City were on their way to Baltimore when their trail derailed. They arrived the following day.
In spite of the chaos, only one life was lost in this epic fire. A few days after the blaze was extinguished, the charred body of a black man was found in Baltimore Harbor.
Other similar fires in American history resulted in hundreds of fatalities. Three hundred died at the hands of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. 140 died in the Triangle Factory Fire in New York in 1911. In 1894, the Great Hinckley Fire in Minnesota claimed over 400 lives. A 1903 Chicago fire extinguished the lives of 600 theatre patrons. The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 surpassed all of these tragedies in size and damage, yet only one life was lost.