It was only through a fault and by an error
“Fire, fire,” I heard the cry
Amid an awful struggle of commotion,
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I first learned this song from a Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers LP in the 1960's. Playing with San Antonio band Tiger Balm back then, I more closely followed that version, with our fiddler Tommy Cullpepper recreating Posey Rorrer's wonderful fiddle part, originally recorded in 1929. I mostly forgot about the song for almost two decades, recalling it occasionally for a song circle or jam.
Then, Shaidri and I started doing it some years ago, and as is usually the case, in the interim my combination of fluctuating memory cells and wandering musical attention span pulled the song into the version offered, with minor changes in melody and lyrics.
Shaidri's harmony just knocks me out. At her suggestion this became a duet with both of us singing all the way through. I know cello is not traditionally a string band instrument, but I think Doug's part fits beautifully here. Think of it as "church bass", a context in which cello was often played.
...raged in Baltimore, Maryland, on Sunday, February 7, and Monday, February 8, 1904. 1,231 firefighters were required to bring the blaze under control. It destroyed a major part of central Baltimore, including over 1,500 buildings covering an area of some 140 acres.
One reason for the fire's duration was the lack of national standards in fire-fighting equipment. Although fire engines from nearby cities (such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. as well as units from New York City, Virginia, Wilmington, and Atlantic City) responded, many could not help because their hose couplings could not fit Baltimore's hydrants.
Much of the destroyed area was rebuilt in relatively short order, and the city adopted a building code, stressing fireproof materials. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the fire was the impetus it gave to efforts to standardize firefighting equipment in the United States, especially hose couplings.
Almost forgotten in this day of strict fire codes is that in centuries past, fires would regularly sweep through cities, frequently destroying large areas of them. Close living quarters, lax, non-enforced, or non-existent building codes, and a widespread dearth of firefighting services all contributed to both the frequency and the extent of city fires. The rapid growth of American cities in the nineteenth century contributed to the danger.
In addition, fire fighting practices and equipment were largely non-standardized: each city had its own system. As time passed, these cities invested more in the systems they already had, increasing the cost of any conversion. In addition, early equipment was often patented by its manufacturer. By 1903, there were over 600 sizes and variations of fire hose couplings in the United States. Although efforts to establish standards had been made since the 1870s, there had been little progress: no city wanted to abandon its system, few saw any reason to adopt standards, and equipment manufacturers did not want competition. Progression of the Fire
Fire was reported first at the John Hurst and Company building in Baltimore at 10:48 a.m. on February 7, and quickly spread. Soon, it became apparent that the fire was outstripping the ability of the city's firefighting resources to fight it, and calls for help were telegraphed to other cities. By 1:30 p.m., units from Washington, DC, were arriving. To halt the fire, officials decided to use a firewall, and dynamited buildings around the existing fire. This tactic, however, was unsuccessful. Not until 5:00 p.m. the next day was the fire brought under control, after burning for thirty hours.
One reason for the fire's duration was the lack of national standards in fire-fighting equipment. Fire crews fire engines came from as far away as Philadelphia and Washington that day (units from New York City were on the way, but were blocked by a train accident; they arrived the next day). The crews brought their own equipment. Most could only watch helplessly when they discovered that their hoses could not fit Baltimore's hydrants. High winds and freezing temperatures added to the difficulty for firefighters and further contributed to the severity of the fire. As a result, the fire burned over 30 hours, destroying 1,545 buildings spanning 70 city blocks — amounting to over 140 acres.
While Baltimore was criticized for its hydrants, this was a problem that was not unique to Baltimore. During the time of the Great Fire "American cities had more than six hundred different sizes and variations of fire hose couplings." It is known that as outside fire fighters returned to their home cities they gave interviews to newspapers that condemned Baltimore and talked up their own actions during the crisis. In addition, many newspapers were guilty of taking for truth the word of travelers who, in actuality, had only seen the fire as their trains passed through the area. All this notwithstanding, the responding agencies and their equipment did prove useful as their hoses only represented a small part of the equipment brought with them. One benefit to this tragedy was the standardization of hydrants nationwide.
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. Officers from Philadelphia and New York were sent to assist the Baltimore Police Department. Police and soldiers were used to keep looters away and keep the fire zone free of civilians. The Naval Brigade secured the waterfront and waterways to keep spectators away.
Over $150,000,000 worth of damage was done. Immediately after the fire, Mayor Robert McLane was quoted in the Baltimore News as saying, "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." He then refused assistance, stating "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.'" Two years later, on September 10, 1906, the Baltimore-American reported that the city had risen from the ashes and "One of the great disasters of modern time had been converted into a blessing."
It was long believed that no lives were lost directly to the fire. Many books written on the Great Fire said no deaths occurred as a direct relation to the fire, and a plaque that commemorates the Great Fire also reads "Lives Lost: None." However, a recently rediscovered Baltimore Sun newspaper story from the time tells of the charred remains of a "colored man" being pulled from the harbor, near the area where the USS Constellation is currently docked, days after the fire.
Four lost lives were attributed indirectly to the fire. Two members of the 4th Regiment of the Maryland National Guard, Private John Undutch of Company F and Second Lieutenant John V. Richardson of Company E both fell ill and died as a result of pneumonia. Fireman Mark Kelly and Fire Lieutenant John A. McKnew also died of pneumonia and tuberculosis due to exposure during the Great Fire.
In the aftermath, 35,000 people were made unemployed. After the fire, the city was rebuilt using more fireproof materials, such as granite pavers.
LegacyAs a result of the fire a city building code was adopted. Public pressure, coupled with demands of companies insuring the newly re-built buildings, spurred the effort. The process took seventeen nights of hearings and multiple city council reviews. A national standard for fire hydrant and hose connections was adopted by the National Fire Protection Association. However, inertia remained, and conversion was slow; it still remains incomplete. One hundred years after the Baltimore Fire, only 18 of the 48 most populous U.S. cities were reported to have installed national standard fire hydrants. Hose incompatibility contributed to the Oakland Firestorm of 1991: although the standard hose coupling has a diameter of 2.5 inches, Oakland's hydrants had 3-inch couplings.
H. L. Mencken survived the fire, but the offices of his newspaper, the Baltimore Herald, were destroyed. The Herald printed an edition the first night of the fire on the press of the Washington Post, in exchange for providing photographs to the Post, but could not continue this arrangement as the Post had a long-standing agreement with the Baltimore Evening News. For the next five weeks the Herald was printed nightly on the press of the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph and transported 100 miles to Baltimore on a special train, provided free of charge by the B&O Railroad.
Mencken relates the fire and its aftermath in the penultimate chapter of Newspaper Days, the second volume of his autobiography. He writes, "When I came out of it at last I was a settled and indeed almost a middle-aged man, spavined by responsibility and aching in every sinew, but I went into it a boy, and it was the hot gas of youth that kept me going."
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