From Grandma’s Album… Baltimore’s Great Fire, 1904, The Souvenir
As my Dad recalled later, “It was gigantic!”
Imagine a family lining the rail of an old and tired steamship, in the year of 1904: 10-year old Francis, and Mother Picek, (very pregnant with Bessie), grubby and exhausted from a long ocean voyage, and Father Picek (dying of cancer, although no one knew: he kept it to himself) having left the two oldest brothers and one younger in the care of unwilling relatives in the Old Country. Picture them sailing in to the Baltimore Harbor in the land of Amerika, the land of promise, of white marble obelisks, the Statue of Liberty and streets paved with gold, hoping for a chance to remake lives that had been shorn of any promise in Bohemia.
But what was this? Charred and smoking rubble… blackened chimneys … even the piers of the port were burned and the quay grimed by smoke and stones cracked by the heat of a horrible fire! As far as they could see through the smoke, nothing… nothing at all.
Everything was burned, from Fells Point on the east all the way down to Jones Falls on
the west; from Canton in the south, nearly to Monument Street in the north. Nothing was spared. No green of parks, no red of brick and if there was marble here, who could tell from the smoke that reeked and choked? Many buildings stood, windowless, doorless and black, just shells, like the Enoch Pratt Library that had been a showpiece for a century. Only a few of the older buildings even had roofs, still: and those all of stone with slate roof tiles. None of the lovely brick homes stood, leaving only tumbled, blackened brick and the pitiful marble steps in which folks had taken such pride, leading to nothing as even the bricks had tumbled into the still-smoking cellars. Even the beautiful copper spires of the old Episcopal church had melted and puddled from the heat.
Here in this city of his newly adopted land was devastation. Could anything be salvaged? “Nothing”, it seemed as young Francis, my Dad, endlessly and hopelessly prowled through rubble.
In a private home turned into a hotel on the edge of the Fells Point district, hopelessly overcrowded with those who still had funds and weren’t living under tents of cloth and sticks, or crowding into any flat spot they could find, this small family stayed until they could find a house to buy.
Francis, having nothing to do other than sit still in the cramped accommodations, spent his days outside, poking through the cooling rubble, making piles of part-burned lumber for firewood and stacks of still good bricks that were hauled away and sold to people who were re-building. He had nothing better to do, since the schools and churches were all closed until they could be cleaned up or re-built.
He found nothing but ash and nameless lumps until, “Oh, look! What is that? Isn’t that a pencil? Although black? But maybe the wood of trees in Amerika is black, too, like all of this darkened world?”
“Oh, perhaps it is merely burned? That’s it! I will keep this as a souvenir.”
And so he did, that charred stick, all that remained from the Great Baltimore Fire.
Page added and published 8/24/18 (C)M. Bartlett
Last updated 8/24/18
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