Thursday, January 10, 2019

How Goliath the Fire Horse became a hero in Baltimore's Great Fire of 1904

Goliath was the lead horse of the three horse team, pulling the Hale Water Tower into position on Liberty Street. The other two percherons, named Decoration and Electioneer (this name is actually hysterical if you understand that voting districts used to revolve around fire houses and street gangs), had already been unhitched from the rig and were standing nearby, leaving Goliath still in position at the curb, and still hitched to the 65 foot, 5 ton tower.

(to get an idea of what a "water tower" was, I can offer that I photographed one in the Hall of Flame fire fighting museum in Phoenix, though it's been adapted to be pulled around by a Christie front wheel drive unit )

Because they had broken in using a crowbar (there was no watchman in place to let anyone in), and had given what had probably been a long smoldering fire fresh oxygen, and could see flames on the ceiling and smoke heading toward the elevator shaft, what most likely occurred was a backdraft. The ensuing explosion literally blew the roof off the building and blew out the windows, knocking Captain Kahl and 4 other firemen (Guy Ellis, John Flynn, Harry Showacre and Jacob Kirkwood) back into the street.

John E Hurst Building

It was a 6 story dry goods company, almost everything inside was flammable. The other firemen inside were able to escape without injury, however, the lead horse for Engine 15 was severely burned.

 The enormous, 1 ton, white percheron, named Goliath, the head of the three horse team, was pulling the Hale Water Tower into position on Liberty Street when the building exploded.

The remains of the Hurst Building. One of the teams of horses used to pull the engines is visible on the left. 

Brick and stone fell onto the stations’s engine sitting on German Street, crushing it and flames went everywhere, shooting out the front door of the business, right into the three horses standing on Liberty Street. All three animals were injured, along with the teams driver, Eugene Short, who either didn’t notice, or didn’t realize at the time that his burns were that bad.

Goliath was seared from neck to flank because of his position at the curb (the lead horse always had the curb position to keep the engines or whatever they were hauling away from the curb and out of the gutter), but despite his horrible injuries, he quickly veered the tower away from the falling debris (the entire roof came off the building), saving the 4-5 firemen still on the tower’s wagon, the driver, and pushing Decoration and Electioneer out of the way at the same time.

If he hadn’t reacted as he had, all would have been crushed. Now the only horse hitched to the tower, he strained to free the trapped fire apparatus and steer it through an obstacle course of falling, fiery, wood, brick, glass and rubble. Unable to maneuver forward, driver and horse worked against time to attempt the impossible, a u-turn in the tight confines of Liberty Street, in order to save the tower and get it away from the toppling building.

 As soon as horse, man and tower had cleared the corner at Liberty Street, what was left of the already crumbling Hurst building finally collapsed. Eugene had Goliath rushed immediately to the Fire Department’s vet on West Lexington Street.

Goliath survived his injuries, although he spent 6 months under the vets care. He went back to being a fire horse, but became a favorite with children at parades. His burn scars would be visible for the rest of his life and he lived for another 9 years. When he was retired from service in 1906, a resolution was passed by the city council so that he would remain in the care of the City Fire Department to prevent him from being sold to a huckster, a heavy teamster or worse, destroyed. He was the only horse in Baltimore to be so honored by the Mayor and the City Council.

It was deemed to be the nations third worst fire, after the Chicago Fire and the San Francisco Fire following the earthquake.

All in all, an 86 city block area burned in just 30-31 hours. Over 1500 buildings were leveled and 1000 were left with severe damage. 2500 businesses were gone. 22 banks were destroyed, although all of the banks vaults held – 11 trust companies, the chamber of commerce, the stock exchange, all but one newspaper office, the railroad office, a church, hotel and business buildings of every kind, new and historic were decimated.

 The damage was estimated at close to $100,000,000.00.

35,000 people were at least temporarily out of work. By some miracle, no civilian lives were lost and no homes were lost – the destruction was just in the business district, which was blissfully closed because it was Sunday. Over 50 firemen were injured and others involved would later experience complications from smoke inhalation, pneumonia, and other lung diseases.

 Federal hydrant standards were to be put in place just two years later because of the hose coupler issues that the out-of-state fire companies had with Baltimore hydrants. Baltimore very quickly rebuilt, but the old colonial city was forever changed. Narrow streets were widened, electrical was placed underground and a plan was put in place to separate the storm drains and the sewage drains and to treat industrial and human waste before returning it to the bay.

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