Monumentally Speaking . . .
Christopher T. George

To Those Who Serve Us: The Firefighters of Baltimore

I n the heat of the summer and the frigid cold of winter, the firefighters of Baltimore are ready to put their lives on the line to save citizens from fires at all hours of day and night. This intrepid spirit is captured by the statue of the fireman in front of Fire Department Headquarters near City Hall standing bold and defiant.

     The mettle of the city's fireman was well tested during one of the greatest fires in Baltimore history that occurred 126 years ago, on July 25, 1873. Although the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 remains the most major conflagration to hit the city, leveling the business district, the Clay Street fire of 1873 was also a calamitous fire, destroying buildings in the area of Park Avenue and Liberty and Saratoga Streets and threatening Baltimore's historic Catholic cathedral, which we know today as the Basilica of the Assumption. In all, 113 buildings were destroyed for a loss of around $750,000--a sizeable sum in 1873.

     The fire broke out around 10:15 A.M. in the sash and blind factory of Messrs. Jos. Thomas & Sons, at Park Avenue and Clay Street. A large quantity of combustible material in the establishment gave the fire such strength that the flames swept rapidly to neighboring buildings. Blazing cinders ignited buildings tinder dry from a hot summer. The heat became so fierce in Park Avenue that the firemen were unable to work, the inferno so intense that it burned some of the fire hoses. Nearby rowhouses on Park, Clay, and Saratoga caught fire.

     Historian Col. J. Thomas Scharf captures the pandemonium of the scene: "Just about eleven o'clock the bells of St. Alphonsus church began to ring, adding their clangor to the noise, and with the varied cries from the restless mass of humanity in the streets, the shrill whistles and hoarse puffing of the steamers, the shouts of the firemen and policemen, and with the deep roar of the flames, made up a babel of noise that greatly intensified the horror of the scene." At this time, the fire department used horse-drawn steam fire engines known as "steamers."

     By now, Clay Street from Park to Lexington and halfway up to Howard Street was consumed in flames. Scharf states, "Scorched and blinded by the intolerable heat, it was almost impossible for the brave firemen to go into Park street at all. . . . Upon Lexington street the First English Lutheran church was a mass of flames. . . . The row of houses between the church and Park street were on fire several times, and were greatly damaged. The row on the west side of Park street. . . seemed at one time doomed for total destruction, but by the strenuous efforts the firemen were enabled to check the flames in this direction."

     The fire spread to Mulberry and a steam engine was sent to the scene where, "fortunately, the flames were mastered after a hard fight." The tall spire of the Central Presbyterian Church at Saratoga and Park took fire and soon the flames "roared through the whole edifice with uncontrollable fury." The fire threatened to consume the Old St. Paul's rectory and the townhouses of merchant Johns Hopkins and Sunpapers proprietor A. S. Abell. The wide width of the street and men stationed on the roofs with fire extinguishers saved the buildings. The roofs of alley houses inhabited by African-American citizens also caught fire, but by the "strenuous exertions" of some policemen and the residents themselves "the flames were prevented from gaining headway."

     During the fire, Scharf says, the dome of the Basilica of the Assumption "appeared in the light of a habitable globe." At great risk to their personal safety, a number of men "exposed themselves on its giddy height, and were continuous in their efforts to prevent its taking fire with water and wet blankets."

     Eventually the conflagration was tamed. Scharf tells us, "The firemen worked with the greatest energy, and by their unremitting toil, quite early in the afternoon the area in which the fire originated was under control. In fact the fire had burnt itself out, Park and Clay streets being smoking ruins." The firemen continued to work to save houses on Saratoga and Howard Streets. At 8:00 P.M., the firemen were able to leave the scene. "For eight hours they fought the flames with steady fortitude, and not a few fell to the ground overpowered by the heat. . . Infirm persons were carried from burning buildings; and no doubt many lives were saved by these gallant men; but all their most praiseworthy acts are performed in the regular line of duty. . . ."

     As in 1873, the city firemen of our day continue to be ready to respond to the city's fire emergencies. The inscription on the base of the statue at fire headquarters states, "Dedicated to the Members of the Baltimore City Fire Department Past, Present, and Future."

[Device] Christopher T. George is a local free-lance writer and poet and the author of the recent picture book on our city, Baltimore Close Up, from Arcadia Publishers, on sale at local bookstores.

Questions or comments about this article for Mr. George.

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