As disastrous fires go, the Great Baltimore Fire comes in historically as the third worst conflagration in an American city, surpassed only by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. There were other major urban disasters that were comparable in cost, but not fires. These were the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and most recently, Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico coast in August 2005.
On February 7, 1904, a small fire was reported at the John Hurst and Company building on West German Street at Hopkins Place, The site is currently the Royal Farms Arena in the western part of downtown Baltimore. The fire started at about 10:48am, and quickly spread. It wasn’t long before the fire surpassed the ability of the city’s firefighting resources, and calls for help were telegraphed to other cities. By 1:30pm, units from Washington, DC were arriving on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Camden Street Station. Officials decided to use a firebreak in an effort to halt the fires progression. They dynamited buildings around the existing fire. Unfortunately, this tactic was unsuccessful. The fire continued to rage and spread until it was finally brought under control about 5:00pm on February 8, 1904.
In the end, the fire engulfed a large portion of the city that evening. The culprit for starting the fire is believed to have been a discarded cigarette in the basement of the Hurst Building. When the fire was finally out after burning for 31 hours, an 80-block area of downtown Baltimore, stretching from the waterfront to Mount Vernon on Charles Street, had been destroyed. More than 1,500 buildings were completely leveled, and some 1,000 severely damaged, bringing property loss from the disaster to an estimated $100 million. No lives were lose in this disaster…miraculously, although some reports did claim one man died, but that was not confirmed. The fire raged from North Howard Street in the west and southwest, the flames spread north through the retail shopping area as far as Fayette Street and began moving eastward, pushed along by the prevailing winds. Amazingly, it narrowly missed the new 1900 Circuit Courthouse…now known as the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse. The fire passed the historic Battle Monument Square from 1815 to 1827 at North Calvert Street, and the quarter-century-old Baltimore City Hall of 1875 on Holliday Street; and finally spread further east to the Jones Falls stream which divided the downtown business district from the old East Baltimore tightly-packed residential neighborhoods of Jonestown…also known as Old Town and newly named Little Italy.” The fire burned as far south as the wharves and piers lining the north side of the old “Basin,” now the “Inner Harbor” of the Northwest Branch of the Baltimore Harbor and Patapsco River facing along Pratt Street. Also spared was Baltimore’s domed City Hall, built in 1867. The Great Baltimore Fire was the most destructive fire in the United States since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, It destroyed most of the city and caused an estimated $200 million in property damage.