Wednesday, September 13, 2023

"Baltimore will take care of its own, thank you"

The year was 1904.  

What began as a small fire in the basement of the Hurst Building in Baltimore soon spread to nearby buildings and, fanned by high winds and dry conditions, soon became a legendary conflagration that wiped out or severely damaged an estimated 2,500 buildings spanning dozens of city blocks. For over a century, it was considered the third worst urban fire in US history (behind the Great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871).  Damage was estimated at over $4 billion in today's dollars and 35,000 people were left unemployed. 

 A descendant of one of the fire fighters who documented the fire's cause, progress, and legacy, posted a well-researched history and numerous photos (including those on this page) HERE.  An eyewitness wrote:  

Tongue fails, pen is inadequate, mind refuses to comprehend the extent of the disaster,but, some idea of the size of the district which has been swept may be gathered when it is stated that it includes more than 175 acres of ground—all of it in the heart of the business section.

Miraculously, no deaths were officially reported as a result of the fire, though evidence has been uncovered that there were at least one or two reports of loss of life. Local leaders addressed the emergency in a holistic way, utilizing a large number of firefighters from neighboring states and municipalities.

In addition to firefighters, outside police officers, as well as the Maryland National Guard and the Naval Brigade, were utilized during the fire to maintain order and protect the city. Police and soldiers not only kept looters away, but also prevented civilians from inadvertently interfering with firefighting efforts. The Naval Brigade secured the waterfront and waterways to keep spectators away. Officers from Philadelphia and New York also assisted the City Police Department.


The most interesting parts of this story are the reasons for the dramatic spreading of the flames and the resilience the City and its leaders demonstrated throughout the ordeal and afterward.  So why did the fire spread so quickly? Even given the poor weather that exacerbated the spread of the flames, the reasons were the same as those commonly heard after other urban fires at the time, and for many similar fires in less developed metropolises today:

Close living quarters; lax, unenforced, or non-existent building codes; and a widespread dearth of firefighting services were all contributing factors to the frequency and extent of urban fires. The rapid expansion of American cities during the nineteenth century also contributed to the danger.  

In addition, firefighting practices and equipment were largely un-standardized, with each city having its own system. As time passed, these cities invested more in the systems that they already had, increasing the costs of any conversion. In addition, early equipment was often patented by its manufacturer. By 1903 (for instance), over 600 sizes and variations of fire hose couplings existed in the United States. (The correction of this problem was one of the most valuable outcomes of this expensive tragedy.)

For Baltimore, the fire was a turning point in the development of building codes and standards.  Shortly after the fire, the local paper recorded a statement by the City's Mayor Robert McLane and his outright refusal to accept outside assistance:

"To suppose that the spirit of our people will not rise to the occasion is to suppose that our people are not genuine Americans. We shall make the fire of 1904 a landmark not of decline but of progress... As head of this municipality, I cannot help but feel gratified by the sympathy and the offers of practical assistance which have been tendered to us. To them I have in general terms replied, 'Baltimore will take care of its own, thank you.'"

And they did.  "Baltimore finally adopted a city building code after seventeen nights of hearings and multiple City Council reviews. The city's downtown 'Burnt District' was rebuilt using more fireproof materials, such as granite pavers. Public pressure, coupled with demands of companies insuring the newly re-built buildings, spurred the effort."

Just two years after the blaze, the Baltimore Sun reported that "the city had risen from the ashes and that one of the great disasters of modern time had been converted into a blessing."  How did that happen?  An introduction to a collection of materials about the fire on file Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library includes the following explanation:

Baltimore City officials and the State of Maryland were quick to respond in the aftermath of the fire. The Citizens' Relief Committee (CRC) and BDC were each established by an act of the Maryland General Assembly and put at the disposal of Mayor Robert M. McLane. The CRC was given a fund of $250,000 to disburse for the immediate relief of those individual citizens who had lost property in the fire. Financial aid came in from around the country as well.

It is testament to the resilience of Baltimoreans that only a mere $23,000 was spent. The BDC set to work creating and implementing plans to clear away debris and rubble and to clear and widen streets and rebuild and open public spaces. It took three years to do it, but they played a significant role in helping Baltimore get back on its feet to thrive and flourish as a bustling metropolis once more.



Lahaina, Maui in the State of Hawaii.  

Lahaina, a former whaling town that evolved into a major tourist attraction, was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the historic district was placed on the National Register in 1962.  But on August 8th, a brush fire was reported east of the historic city. A variety of sources summarized HERE, continue the story:

The wildfire rapidly grew in both size and intensity. Wind gusts pushed the flames through the northeastern region of the community, where dense neighborhoods were. Hundreds of homes burned in a matter of minutes, and residents identifying the danger attempted to flee in vehicles while surrounded by flames. As time progressed, the fire moved southwest and downslope towards the Pacific coast and Kahoma neighborhood. Firefighters were repeatedly stymied in their attempts to defend structures by failing water pressure in fire hydrants; as the melting PVC pipes in burning homes leaked, the network lost pressure despite the presence of working backup generators.

Residents rushed to flee the old town, with its tinder-ready wooden structures.  Some ran into the ocean to escape the flames.  But the evacuation was delayed and slow.

Officials said that civil defense sirens were not activated during the fire even though Hawaii has the world's largest integrated outdoor siren warning system, with over 80 sirens on Maui alone meant to be used in cases of natural disasters. Several residents later told journalists that they had received no warning and did not know what was happening until they encountered smoke or flames. There had been no power or communications in Lahaina for much of the day, and authorities issued a confusing series of social media alerts which reached a small audience.

To-date, the death toll stands at 115 persons.  Estimates of damage range, so far, between $3.2 and $5.5 billion.  Last week, Governor Josh Green delivered an address to mark the date one month "since flames tore through historic Lahaina town, leaving at least 115 people dead and razing more than 2,200 structures. In addition to the unthinkable death toll, the fire has devastated Maui’s economy and left 7,500 displaced.  In an address Friday from his ceremonial room, Green said that Hawaii continues to grieve with families who have lost loved ones. He also offered an update on the number of missing, saying that number now stands at 66 — down from 385 last week and more than 3,000 originally."

Watching media accounts of the Maui fires as they raged, I couldn't help but compare and contrast this situation to that of Baltimore in 1904--albeit in a very different environment. The story was familiar.  There were physical contributing factors (weather) and a population center occupying structures made of primarily flammable materials.  There were local leaders struggling to deal with an ongoing emergency and then trying to settle post-fire investigations and finger pointing.  Unlike Baltimore, there was little available help from surrounding communities and states as the fire raged.  The Federal government stepped in, but well after the worst had passed.

My conclusion is a simple one, but one I hope to see play out well for the historic town, the state and for the survivors of the tragedy.  Local and state leaders are at a crossroads, not unlike Baltimore in 1904.  Whether they accept responsibility and lead their own recovery like Baltimore's leaders did, or whether politics continues to tie their hands and delay the healing of their community, is up to them.  

Ultimately, however, like the Baltimore Sun reported 115 years ago, I hope that news media in Hawaii will one day soon be reporting that "the city has risen from the ashes and that one of the great disasters of modern time had been converted into a blessing."



For a fascinating presentation on the history of fires (including Baltimore) and the changes in fire codes they brought about, click here

The youthful mayor of Baltimore during the fire died shortly after the fire, under mysterious circumstances. Story here.

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