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Fire Museum presents 1904 Baltimore fire disaster in pictures

By Cassandra A. Fortin
The Baltimore Sun
Copyright 2006 The Baltimore Sun Company
All Rights Reserved

Shortly after the Great Fire of Baltimore started the morning of Feb. 7, 1904, J.E. Henry spent about a half-hour photographing the collapse of the Hurst building, where the blaze started.

Meanwhile, A.C. Abadie was sent to film the fire using a motion picture camera that Thomas Edison had just patented.

And after the fire had been extinguished, Julian Jenkel stood on the rooftop of the Elliott Cigar Manufacturer building and took pictures of the debris that covered more than 140 acres of downtown Baltimore.

Artifacts from the original collections of the three photographers are among the items on display in Illustrators of the Great Fire, an exhibit that opened recently at the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville.

The exhibit is a natural continuation of the permanent Great Fire collection at museum, said museum registrar Melissa Heaver.

“This collection goes a step further and shows how the fire was documented,” Heaver said. “It commemorates the work of the illustrators of the fire.”

The idea for the exhibit came when Heaver received a call more than a year ago from Jenkel’s daughter, Margaret White, who possessed her father’s original glass plate negatives. Heaver eagerly accepted the Catonsville resident’s offer to allow her to make prints from the negatives.

Heaver then received a call from a former neighbor of Henry’s who said he, too, had original glass negatives. Many of the prints had never been published.

The man told Heaver that he stored things for Henry in his garage. While cleaning one day in preparation for a move to Florida, he found the negatives.

Heaver began scanning Henry’s negatives to make prints for the exhibit and spent several months researching the images and the stories behind them.

“There is so much out there on the Great Fire,” Heaver said. “I had to finally stop and say, `This is it.’”

However, there are many items Heaver wished she could have included. For example, she acquired an original photograph taken by Jacob Bloom, who took portraits of people in front of a fire engine and made the photos into postcards as a memento of the event.

The photograph in the exhibit depicts a man and his two daughters in formal attire standing in front of the steamer, Heaver said.

“The card just has his name on the back of it. No one knows why he did this or how many he took,” said Heaver, who also volunteers as collections manager at the Historical Society of Baltimore County. “But there are several floating around out there. It’s one of the mysteries of the fire that intrigues me.”

In addition to presenting images from the fire, the exhibit was compiled in part to give a glimpse of the people behind the camera, said Stephen Heaver, the director of the Lutherville museum.

“These photographers depicted in the exhibit were working under very stressful conditions,” said Stephen Heaver, husband of Melissa. “No one had ever suffered such a fire before.”

And they did so with equipment that was cumbersome, he said.

“The photographer had to remove the negative and replace it with a new one every time they took a shot,” said Heaver, who opened the museum with his father in 1971. “They were great with still shots but when a shot involved people moving or doing something, they became difficult to use.”

The photographers frequently used glass negatives that were at least a quarter-inch thick and 5 inches by 7 inches or 8 inches by 10 inches, Stephen Heaver said.

The exhibit also allows for a deeper level of research into the fire, he said.

“For anyone looking for information on what was going on during the fire, this is another strata of information that adds to the oral reports of the event,” he said. “People love to look at pictures.”

Other items in the exhibit include Jenkel’s camera, a copy of a letter written by Saturday Evening Post illustrator N.C. Wyeth to his mother giving his personal account of the fire, an original copy of a story from The Sun that includes photos of the slides made by Edison’s cameraman, stereoscope cards and drawings and paintings of the fire.

The Fire Museum of Maryland, at 1301 York Road, is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is $6, $5 for seniors and firefighters, $4 for children ages 2 to 12 and free for children under 2.