America was on its way to becoming the richest and most powerful nation on earth. All the World was envious of U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Our cities were magnificent– Largest shipyards, textile industries, dry goods, railroads, canning industry, and with innovation skills to better all lives.
Yet, truthfully, the cities were grown with haphazard designs. Wooden buildings were put up for any reason. Businesses came and went; streets were narrow. Often there was no real urban planning as we know it today. Instead, just the powerful drive to grow—be the best! Anything, Anytime, as long as it was for America’s business.
We, the world’s greatest, were also the world’s busiest. Our cities, with old wooden buildings and new stone monuments, marked our progression to becoming “The World Power”. Cities were the core of greatness in America. But having grown so fast, the cities were vulnerable to instabilities from uncontrollable events. With their haphazard buildings and a lack of controlled design, the cities, above all, faced nature’s discovery of their weakness. Well, that lead to some explosions in some cities—catastrophic events that rocked our world. Made us think a bit. Two of the jewels of American progress would soon be reduced by nature’s prowess to smoldering, broken ashes. And then, of course, rebuilt better than ever.
On a cold February 7, 1904, The Hurst building in Baltimore just exploded. “Boom! It knocked me off my feet,” said one bystander. And the fire spread by winter winds, the narrow streets acting like wind tunnels.
It started by someone smoking and dropping an ash down the small floor holes that lighted the Hurst basement. The fire was contained initially, but backdraft and the dry goods just blew apart the building, and the fire spread. Firemen, mostly volunteers, could not get ladders up past the electrical wires.
Help came from around the countryside and other cities, but their fire hoses did not match the couplings on the fire hydrants. Over 600 different couplings were present in fire companies at that time. It took Congress 7 years to finally fix that little concern. Meanwhile in Baltimore, the richest city in the nation, over 80 blocks and 150 acres in the city center were demolished. The devastation was overwhelming: over 2500 businesses and almost 6000 residences were destroyed; of almost 1500 buildings, fewer than 50 remained after the fire. Flames almost reached the rich neighborhood of Mount Vernon, but winds pushed the fire into the stone buildings and monuments erected in the late 1800s, and burned out after two and a half days. Baltimore, proud, did not ask or take the money offered from other cities and states, and rebuilt itself.
It was the worst fire disaster in America, up to that time. The Baltimore city Fire companies valiantly tried to contain the blazing fire, with new and old equipment. Baltimore was prepared, but the size and scope caused great trauma. Muleteers made a great profit moving business goods. Still American ingenuity. Two years later, amazingly, with the streets widened, Baltimore glistened with new businesses and products.
Two years later in April 1906, an earthquake in San Francisco started a fire that killed over 400 people. Ramshackle design, closely spaced wooden buildings, and fire companies unprepared for the magnitude of the Great Fire, many times, stood helpless in the Bay winds.
The San Francisco earthquake that started the fire in the City occurred at 5 am with an intensity of almost 8.0 on the scale. Like Baltimore on the East Coast, San Francisco was the jewel city on the West Coast. City gas lines exploded and over 490 city blocks were destroyed by over 30 separate fires. One of the largest was the ‘Ham and Eggs Fire’ started by a woman making breakfast. Firemen used dynamite to demolish buildings as firebreaks. The buildings instead caught fire. Troops were brought to the city to restore order. People set fire to their homes for insurance money. Fire, not earthquake damage, was covered under their policies. In today’s equivalent, over 8 billion dollars in damage claims were paid by 137 companies. And San Fran, like Baltimore, also rebuilt better than ever.
You stand tall, you get knocked down, and you get up taller than ever. The Fires, many say the worst in the World’s history, affecting the most people, were contained, then controlled, and our cities rebuilt better than ever. So when you walk or drive by a vintage Fire company in your neighborhood, volunteer or otherwise, smile and you might say, “thank you,” for saving and rebuilding America in the early 20th century.
Photos from public records.