Published on February 8, 2021.


Baltimore's 1904 conflagration


In the morning of February 7, 1904, a fire started in the basement of the John E. Hurst and Co. building in Baltimore, Maryland. The building’s automatic fire alarm system activated, and the fire department, located two blocks away, responded immediately.

Firefighters encountered an aggressive fire that quickly spread up an elevator shaft and caused an explosion that blew out most of the building’s windows. By then, every floor was engulfed; firefighters struggled to control the blaze as strong winds carried the fire to neighboring buildings. An NFPA report described it as “a horizontal fire [in] its attack and progress in each building.”

Overwhelmed firefighters requested assistance from nearby communities, which sent apparatus and personnel on railway cars. Neighboring cities provided 1700 firefighters, 57 steam engines, nine hose and ladder trucks, two hose companies, a fire boat, and a police boat, according to an article in Firemen.

But assisting fire departments were unable to connect their hoses to the Baltimore hydrants because the couplings were incompatible. Crews drew water from the harbor; others created makeshift connections to hydrants using barrels and horse troughs as reservoirs. City officials authorized the demolition of buildings in an attempt to stop the conflagration, but the dynamite did not fully destroy the buildings; the fire continued, burning unchecked through the night and into the next day until its progress was blocked by a canal, where it was extinguished by 36 companies of firefighters.

No lives were lost during the conflagration, but the damage was immense. The fire burned for more than 30 hours, destroying 2,500 buildings over 80 city blocks. NFPA Applied Research lists the Baltimore Conflagration in the top 25 largest fire losses in the United States, with $50 million in losses. The fire illuminated the need for improvements to building construction and design and revealed the consequences of incompatible fire hose connections.

Later that year, the NFPA Committee on Fire-Resistive Construction issued a report detailing the construction, exposures, occupancy, and damage of the 27 fire-resistive buildings in the Baltimore Conflagration. According to Annex B in NFPA 163, Standard for Fire Hose Connections, NFPA then appointed the Committee on Standard Thread for Fire Hose Couplings to develop general screw thread specifications in 1905. Over the next 17 years, the committee worked to establish those specifications as a national standard. The standard was approved and adopted by 20 organizations and was designated as an American Standard by the American Standards Association (ASA) in 1925.

CAITLIN WALKER is a digital asset librarian at NFPA. Top photograph: Getty Images