Glancing Back at the Devastating Fire that Delivered Baltimore into the 20th Century
You can read all the dramatic fire facts, figures, and amazing anecdotes, as well as see a slew of fascinating photos, in Peter B. Petersen's The Great Baltimore Fire, a hardbound tome just released by the Maryland Historical Society. However, looking back at the tragedy and its aftermath from the 21st century, what's perhaps most interesting is what you don't read about in Peterson's comprehensive study: lawsuits. More than $70 million worth of property went up in flames, and yet cash-hungry finger-pointing lawyers don't appear to be part of the post-blaze picture. If dozens of blocks of Baltimore got put to the match today, you can easily imagine the resulting legal wranglings stretching on for decades.
"That a difference 100 years makes," says Jeannine Disviscour, curator of the Maryland Historical Society's other means of marking the fire's 100 anniversary: the exhibit Baltimore Ablaze: The Great Fire of 1904, which opens at the newly expanded Society campus Feb. 7. "I'm not aware of any lawsuits [from the fire]. I don't think that happened."
No, Disviscour says, victims of the blaze--which likely began when an errant cigar or cigarette butt made its way into the basement of a dry-goods outlet on the corner of Liberty and German (now Redwood) streets--"helped themselves and weren't expecting all these handouts." Indeed, the city even turned down federal financial assistance
Clearly Baltimore was a different city a century ago. And part of Disviscour's curatorial mission goes beyond displaying artifacts and telling tales related to the fire itself, to present a picture of Baltimore in the early days of last century. And, perhaps most importantly, to present and ponder they myriad ways in which the fire changed the city.
"We want people to come away with the sense that the city made an incredible comeback," Disviscour says. "We sustained incredible losses--the original footprint of 1729 Baltimore Town burned. But the city saw the loss and didn't mourn it in a paralyzing way. They decided to move forward."
Alas, just as Mother Nature conspired against the city during the blaze, when winds up to 25 mph helped spread the fire, so has she dealt a nasty hand to Disviscour. Our recent bout of snow and ice has wreaked havoc with the exhibit's installation schedule. On this late January day, all she can do is wander amid the 6,000 square feet of freshly painted exhibit space and point to where artifacts and signage will eventually be installed.
Many of the more than 300 items that will make up the exhibit are presently scattered about an adjacent storeroom. Most were drawn from the Society's own holdings, which were augmented several years ago by items from the defunct Baltimore City Life Museums. Disviscour says it's taken more than three years to cull together the pieces. Leather firefighters' helmets line one wall, framed vintage photos are stacked everywhere, and a wheeled cart contains a collection of artifacts testifying to the fire's up-to-2,500-degree temperatures: melted bottles, nails melded together into a sculptural blob, and other grisly, heat-distorted hunks of the past.
The exhibit is chronologically arranged, opening with a section called "Quiet Sunday Morning" rife with images of a sleepy, unburned Baltimore. The only hint of the coming conflagration will be a 1929 recording of the folk ditty "Baltimore Fire " playing in the background. From here, visitors plunge into the blaze itself. As Baltimore's fire was among the first major disasters to be fully documented, fire photos abound. There is even some primitive film shot by cameramen from Thomas Edison's film company.
"There will be 13 minutes of footage of smoldering ruins running continuously in the exhibit," Disviscour says. "It's really cool."
Both the exhibit and Petersen's book incorporate the latest fire scholarship, including local historian James Collins' recent discovery that an unidentified black man might have been a direct victim of the fire--contradicting the longstanding belief that no one was killed in the fire (Charmed Life, Sept. 3, 2003, www.citypaper.com/2003 -09-03/charmed. html). The exhibit also features artifacts and oral histories related to the heretofore little examined impact the fire had on the city's African-American community.
"We know black businesses were burned out in the fire," Disviscour says. "There were a number of black-owned barbershops and other small businesses burned out. We also know that the black community helped clean up and rebuild the city."
The exhibit's final section details Baltimore's phoenix-like rise from the ashes--an event spurred along by the Burnt District Commission, the civic body charged with remaking the city. Fueled by bond-issue and insurance monies, numerous infrastructure improvements came to the devastated acreage. Streets were widened, telegraph wires placed underground, and antiquated harbor facilities brought fully into the steamship era.
"I think [Baltimore] was really in danger of becoming obsolete," Disviscour says. "The fire allowed us to make changes a lot more quickly than we would have made them, and frankly gave us the money to do so."
And so the city was wrenched into the 20th century--and just in time for what many might consider and even more pernicious despoiler of the urban fabric: the rise of the automobile.
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