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Office of News and Information
Johns Hopkins University
901 S. Bond Street, Suite 540
Baltimore, Maryland 21231
Phone: (443) 287-9960 | Fax (443) 287-9920

January 12, 2004
CONTACT: Glenn Small
(443) 287-9960

A Howling Inferno: The Great Baltimore Fire
Professor Delves into the City's Worst Disaster

Pete Petersen holds a photo of the aftermath of The Great Baltimore Fire in his office, which looks out onto where the fire happened.

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.

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).

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. Listen in to Petersen describe his research.

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