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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 12, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 17
Great Baltimore Fire Subject of New Book and Odyssey Class

In his Downtown Center office, SPSBE management professor Pete Petersen has views of the area that was devastated in 1904 by the Great Baltimore Fire.

By Glenn Small

Within an hour of the start of the Great Baltimore Fire on Feb. 7, 1904, the fire chief of the city was struck by a sparking electrical wire and incapacitated for most of the 30-hour blaze. Instead of an experienced fire chief leading the battle to contain the worst fire in Baltimore's history, the job fell to the department's district engineer and the city's energetic young mayor.

Elected at age 35, Robert McLane was the youngest mayor in Baltimore's history. The inexperienced McLane, a graduate of Johns Hopkins, stood in the streets during the fire, cheering on the firefighters, said Pete Petersen, a professor of management in SPSBE and author of the soon-to-be-published book The Great Baltimore Fire (Maryland Historical Society, February, $29.95).

"It was the macho thing to do, to be at the fire" — but perhaps, Petersen said, not the smartest approach from a leadership point of view. McLane failed to set up a communications command center, and as a result, Petersen said, he was impossible to locate during the crisis. One result was that mayors of other cities, including New York, were unable to contact McLane to make sure he wanted those cities to send help. New York did send firefighters, but that help "came late," Petersen noted.

Petersen and other experts on the Great Baltimore Fire will take part this spring in a lecture series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the fire. The series is part of the Johns Hopkins noncredit Odyssey program, which offers a wide array of personal enrichment courses, from foreign languages, history and philosophy to writing grant proposals.

Some of the other spring offerings are "The Story of Ireland," a 10-week course delving into the rich history and heritage of the Emerald Isle; "Mystery Loves Company: Conversations with Leading Mystery Writers"; and "Sex, Terrorism and Robber Barons: The Post-Soviet Reality," an eight-week course featuring, among others, Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev.

Petersen will begin the course on the Great Baltimore Fire with a March 2 lecture titled "Big Fire Here: Must Have Help At Once."

In a matter of hours, more than 70 blocks of downtown Baltimore, an area equal in size to the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, burned to the ground. More than 1,500 buildings were lost in the blaze, and damage was estimated at $150 million (in 1904 dollars).

The city reported no loss of life, a fiction that persisted for nearly 100 years.

In his book, Petersen documents that two firefighters and two soldiers died as a result of injuries received in fighting the fire, although none of them was burned. In addition, James Collins, a recent Hopkins graduate, did his thesis on the Baltimore fire and uncovered evidence of a man whose burned body was found days later in the Baltimore harbor, into which he apparently had run or fallen. Although the man's death was reported and his body appeared to have been burned, the city continued to say that no one had died in the fire.

Collins located a death certificate for the man, an African-American whose burnt and water-soaked corpse went unclaimed and was later cremated by the state, evidence that Petersen believes proves the rumor at the time that someone had run or fallen into the harbor because of the flames.

Petersen spent four years researching and writing his 232-page work on the fire, and spent many long hours in his office in the Downtown Center at the corner of Fayette and Charles streets, with a view of the area that was destroyed by the fire. He recently sat down to talk about the book and the fire. To listen, go to

"The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904," a six-session series with five lectures and a walking tour, is being offered in cooperation with the Maryland State Archives and the Maryland Historical Society.

For the complete list of Odyssey classes with cost and registration information, go to


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