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
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
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