After the Great Baltimore Fire

Posted on May 13, 2020 by

A blog post by Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

On the morning of Sunday, February 7, 1904, a building near the present-day Royal Farms Arena in downtown Baltimore caught fire. The blaze spread, and despite the efforts of thousands of firefighters and National Guardsmen, it wasn’t until late the next day that the Great Baltimore Fire was conquered, leaving behind a forever-changed downtown (and incidentally leading to the development of standardized firefighting equipment).

In the days following the fire, many Baltimoreans ventured out to take a first-hand look at the damage: over 1,500 buildings destroyed, and nearly as many damaged, across 140 acres of downtown. Today, several local museums and libraries, the Jewish Museum of Maryland among them, are fortunate to have written and photographic evidence of the fire and the devastation it caused. Digital Maryland’s online exhibit uses many of these resources to map the progression of the fire’s destruction, along with before-and-after views of the landscape. In our own collections, photographs taken by several individuals provide additional views of the immediate aftermath.

A crowd of pedestrians viewing the fire’s destruction; the street is still wet from the efforts of firefighters. Part of a set of photos taken by a member of the Friedenwald family in the days following the fire. Gift of Julia Friedenwald Strauss Potts. JMM 1984.23.2090. 

Eli G. Cohen (1877-1943), a twenty-five-year-old cigar factory manager, not only brought his camera downtown to document the fire, he also pasted the prints into a dedicated photo album complete with captions. On this page, Cohen documented the burnt-out shells of the Chamber of Commerce and the B&O Building. Gift of Stella Cohen Gersuk. JMM 1997.116.14. 

See more of Cohen’s album here.

Thanks to the efforts of firefighters (and, some believe, to the prayers to St. Anthony, courtesy of the residents of Little Italy) the fire did not cross over the Jones Falls, thus sparing Jonestown, Little Italy, and points east.  On the evening of February 8th, just as the fire was finally waning, A. Morris Schuman (1891-1975) became a bar mitzvah at B’nai Israel on Lloyd Street, in the heart of Jewish Jonestown, several blocks east of the Falls.  Though the drama unfolding elsewhere in the city may not have impeded the ceremony, its impact was felt; over one hundred years later, Schuman’s descendants still remembered the story of how the smoke from the fire could be seen from the synagogue on that night.

Morris Schuman’s tallit bag, used during his bar mitzvah at B’nai Israel on February 8, 1904. Though of clear importance to the family in and of itself, and technically unrelated to the fire, this object was a token by which the family remembered the Great Baltimore Fire, and it allows us here at the JMM to relate a small slice of history in a personal way. Gift of David M. Schuman. JMM 2006.39.1

This post is part of our History is Now: JMM Collects Stories of the Pandemic collecting initiative. We invite you to submit your experiences – through words, images, or objects – to help us preserve the memories and experiences of Jewish Maryland for future generations. More information here.


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