1904 Fire and Death

January 11

Another year has begun at the Shop. Their winter work for ice cream and candy companies fills the place. Joe and his nephews are still grieving for Eugene. When you work with family and there is a death, it’s almost doubly difficult. You miss the brother or family member, but you also miss the co-worker. Someone you spent your day with. Someone who did what you do and you labored together in the same place. The surroundings and familiarity bring back the memories almost daily. They do their jobs with their missing comrade in their thoughts.

February 7

This Sunday finds the Kavanaghs at St. Vincent’s for mass. What happens next will change the Shop forever. The next 24 hours will bring an end to the golden age of the Joseph Kavanagh Co. In this short time, everything changes. The glory days of the Shop end today. At approximately 10:30 am, a fire starts at the John E. Hurst Company near Hopkins Plaza and Liberty Street. A tossed cigarette that fell through a grating into the basement is the assumed cause. The Great Fire has begun. An alarm is called out and firefighters respond. A strong wind inhibits their efforts. The Fire engulfs the building quickly and by noon, an explosion blows the roof off. Sparks start flying and several more buildings are set aflame. Quickly, the Fire gets out of control. More and more firefighters and police respond. Calls are made out to Washington D. C. and any nearby fire departments. The help is needed. When the D. C. firemen arrive with their equipment, there is hope that the Fire can be stopped. Confusion and frustration wipes that away as there are issues connecting the D. C. fire hoses to the Baltimore hydrants. The connecting fittings are different. They are forced to stuff cloth in the fittings in an effort to make them fit snug. It works somewhat but greatly reduces the water pressure. Second stories and roofs are unreachable as the Fire spreads faster and faster. Destroying as it goes. The wind driving the flames northward. In the early evening, firefighters try dynamiting buildings to halt the Fire’s path. This is unsuccessful as sparks keep flying and the Fire keeps moving. Word of the fire spreads just as fast. Citizens are shocked and frightened. The Kavanaghs are no different. They have much more at stake though the Shop is not in the Fire’s path. Uncle Joe and the nephews sleep as best they can as the City continues to burn. They plan to go to the Shop at first light and hope that it is safe. Overnight the wind changes and the Fire starts heading East then Southeast. The wind gusts and several smaller fires begin from blown burning wood brands. These soon merge and enhance the inferno as it now moves toward Pratt and Light Streets in the early morning hours of Monday. Next in the Fire’s path is Lombard Street.

February 8

Joe and his nephews arrive at the Shop early in the morning. The Fire is raging and the wind is driving it. The police and firefighters are insisting that they leave the area. The Kavanaghs are trying their best to save or salvage tools. This scene is repeated throughout the neighborhood as business owners try to keep safe what they can. Soon the police tell the Kavanaghs they must leave. All non police or fire personnel are ushered to the other side of the Jones Falls across the Lombard Street bridge. The Fire is coming. Smoke billows and fills the air. Joe and his nephews stand with the onlookers. The Shop is just a block and a half from the bridge. The Kavanaghs have a good view. The Fire reaches 708 E. Lombard Street and quickly engulfs it. The wind is feeding the Fire. The Shop’s building timbers burn very fast. The smoke is thick and they lose sight of much of the Shop. They stand silently and watch the building be consumed. All they can see is black smoke and the licking of flames that occasionally breaks through. Uncle Joe squints his eyes and stares dumbstruck. The building is a mass of fire and smoke in a matter of moments. The Fire continues to spread. The hope is that the water of the Jones Falls will put a stop to it. The heat gets closer and closer as the Fire continues on its path toward them. With temperatures reaching over 1000 degrees in the heart of the Fire. The Shop is almost completely obscured when it goes down. The wooden frame gives way. The building collapses in a few quick seconds. The Kavanaghs watch their livelihood, their past and their future drop in a mass of rubble. For Uncle Joe, it all disappears in a few fleet seconds. It is over. The Fire is finally quelled by 3 pm. Over 30 Fire Steam Engines pump water from the Jones Falls to stop the flames at the bridges. Some smoldering embers burn for weeks. A black cloud covers Baltimore. And the Kavanaghs. The Shop is gone. She has fallen.

February 9

Uncle Joe has spent a sleepless night thinking of the Shop. His dream for the future, his legacy for his nephews is all gone. He grieves, in a way. The Shop has not just been his business. It’s been his companion, his partner for many years. He has spent countless hours there. Toiling. Sweating. Smithing. It’s all he knows. The Shop is his life really. It is hard for Joe to even accept. He won’t accept it. He calls his nephews to meet at his home. They gather and Joe tells them they shall carry on. He will find a way to get another building. They will do as they have done. The nephews listen as Joe very deliberately commits to their future. He’s an old man. He knows the Shop is no longer for him. He knows it is for the next generation. He will spend the money to find new premises. He will find a way to keep all of their jobs. He assures them that he will do what is necessary. All four promise to follow his lead. To help in anyway and to work as hard as is necessary to save the Shop. Building be damned.

March 10

Joe Kavanagh acquires the rights to rebuild property on Hawk & 7th Streets. The construction begins immediately. The nephews and crew work hard to build a new Shop. It’s a small parcel of land behind the old building. It will serve as a temporary facility until they can get back on their feet. Then, Joe will find better permanent premises.

March 20

James McCarthy who was married to Alice Kavanagh, one of Joe’s nieces, is wandering through the rubble that is all that is left of 708 E. Lombard Street He discovers something strange. In the mass of debris is a silver spoon of all things. It was blackened with soot. After examining it , he realizes it is a part of a set that was given to him and his wife at their wedding. Alice had died several years prior so the finding of this spoon is both bitter and sweet. As it turns out, Joe had borrowed the spoon and not returned it. He had borrowed it from his sister-in-law, Katherine, many months before. Katherine was James McCarthy’s mother-in-law. The set of spoons had been kept at Katherine’s home. Joe lost it and then forgot about it. When James McCarthy tells Joe, he recalls it, but can not imagine how it found its way to Lombard St. The spoon, several hammers and some very dirty copper block are the only things salvageable after the Fire. The story of the spoon is so odd it is reported and printed in the Sun as the “Spoon of the Ruins” on April 2nd.

March 23

The Shop is back in business that fast. Hard work and Joe’s investment have opened the place up. The first job they receive is from Laurer and Suter. One of their regular confectionery customers. A peanut kettle and some associated tubes and apparatus. It’s a welcome sight to Joe. Both Joes. The younger Joe takes the call and his brothers get to work. They are only able to retain about half of their crew. Twelve men including Old Uncle Joe. The money isn’t there to keep the rest. They also have no idea what volume of work will be out there. Most of their local customers were affected either directly or indirectly by the Fire. Business with their out-of-state customers will have to be put on hold for a bit. Travel and commerce in and out of Baltimore is limited until the City is set back in order. Also, the trips to bid these jobs cost money. After buying the Hawk Street property, Joe must be a little cautious with their funds. Still, they are pleased to get started again. A peanut kettle is a good place to begin. They heat copper sheet and roll it into a cylinder. It is tinned and soldered shut. The bottom is attached and the lid made. The rest of the system is fabricated as well. Same as they always have done. Other jobs come in quickly and they have a fair bit of work to begin the short-lived Hawk Street days.

April 19

Joseph A. Kavanagh receives a call from Horsey Distilling. The Shop gets its first big still fabricate and install job from one of its oldest local distilling customers. Uncle Joe is relieved. These larger jobs can keep the place busy for several weeks. The small stuff is good and a mix of both is ideal. This one will help them on their recovery. Martin and James are dispatched to make sketches and take dimensions.

June 1

Things have picked up a bit, but Baltimore is still in its own recovery. The Great Fire was the largest fire in the country since the Chicago Fire of 1871. Approximately 1500 buildings were destroyed. The Fire raged for nearly 30 hours yet, miraculously, only one person died as a direct result of it. It was a devastating blow to the growing and expanding city that was Baltimore. After the Fire, citizens and the City government work together in an impressive display of solidarity. The destroyed sections of the City are cleared and cleaned as quickly as possible. People get back to work. They rally round each other and pitch in to help. A welcome return to some sense of normalcy comes quicker than anticipated. The Shop is back up and running . Making kettles and copper vessels. They receive their regular Summer steamship work. Repairs and replacement ballast pumps. Joe feels better. He’s confident he has done the right thing. He is unsure of what success they can find in their new home. He will ride this out and do his best to set his nephews in the right situation. As always, he hopes for better days.

August 16

The new smaller Shop on Hawk Street receives its first out of state order. They have not been in a position to bid these jobs as yet. After several months of establishing their new premises, Martin and Frank were able to travel to PA and take all the appropriate measurements. Uncle Joe worked up the quotation for the bid and the younger Joe did what he does. He called the customer and sold them on the Shop’s price and even more so on its quality. He assured them that even in the new building they still have the highest of standards of workmanship. They begin today on the still. Most of the crew assigned to this one project. They make the column still, the fittings, drip pans and assorted parts and apparatus that is necessary. Suddenly, it almost seems like the old days.

September 7

The Kavanaghs have stayed busy through a hot Summer. Nephew Joe taking calls and conferring with his uncle on prices. Then the other nephews and workers completing the jobs. Today, Joe grows ill. He has been feeling tired and rather weak lately. His nephews take note and convince him that he should go home. He does so, but feels sicker that evening. The doctor is called and an exam reveals some heart issues. This explains the weariness, but essentially Joe is old. The doctor is frank. He encourages bed rest to regain Joe’s strength. He offers no long term solution. The family is very worried. The nephews and the rest of the family confer. Eugene’s widow, Mary, offers to take Joe in and care for him. This seems like a good arrangement. The nephews are grateful. They know Mary Kavanagh will take good care of Joe. They hold out hope that he will recover. They prepare for the first day in a long time without Joe at the Shop.

October 17

Things are moving smooth enough. The boys have stepped up and the Shop rolls along. Frank and a helper are at Weissner’s Brewery soldering some seams in their beer vats. The remaining crew are making several cooking jacket kettles and small fittings and parts for a boiler repair. They speak of Joe and continue to hope he will be back. It is starting to seem less likely. It is a quiet Shop lately. Even their usual distraction of baseball disappoints this year. They lost their beloved Orioles last year, but still follow the game closely. This season ends with no World Series. The Boston Americans win the A. L. pennant. The New York Giants take the N. L. Giants manager and former Oriole John McGraw refuses to face the Americans. He declares that by winning the National League, the Giants are already champions. The rivalry between the leagues has grown bitter quickly. Fueled by animosity between McGraw and A. L. president, Ban Johnson this time.

November 8

Teddy Roosevelt defeats Alton B. Parker to retain the Presidency. The Kavanaghs most likely voted for him. He was a very popular incumbent. Uncle Joe is getting sicker now. He keeps to his bed at Mary Kavangh’s home on Baltimore St. The nephews visit him regularly. Doing their best to do what he would do. They talk to him about the work they have and pick his brain from his bedside. When Joe is able, he answers any question and advises accordingly. He knows it is still part of his job. He is still Joseph Kavanagh. To answer or assist even to the end is in his nature. It’s the job. As he grows weaker, he can do this less and less. His thoughts were his own in these last months. I try to imagine his state of mind. He has worked at the Shop for 38 years now. More than half his life. He devoted himself to his craft, his business and his family. Finding a way to tie all of those things together. He watched it all crumble in one terrifying moment. He has done enough to restart the place, but he has no idea if it will last. It has only been seven months and winter is coming. Will they make it through the cold and will the work be there? The question he asked himself so many times in his life. Will the Shop make it through the winter? Joe will never know the answer.

December 4

Joseph Michael Kavanagh dies. He passes quietly in his sleep. The family gathers to mourn. He was 68 years old and had outlived all of his siblings. He was the patriarch and leader of the Kavanaghs in so many ways. Most importantly, he was the man responsible for the livelihood and security of his Kavanagh nephews and their families. He, also, was the elder gentlemen who helped and advised the family. He assisted with money, but also with faith and trust in them. What greater example of that than to have put so much of what he had back into the business. Knowing that it would not be for him. It would be for those that he taught. Those that he worked with. Those that he loved. And all those who would follow. The Kavanaghs pray for their fallen uncle and leader. They take solace in their faith as he would have done. They take strength from each other and the bond they have. Joe is buried at New Cathedral Cemetery near his beloved mother. The family is overwhelmed with grief, but they will carry on. The Kavanaghs are all of the new generation now. The generation born here in America. No longer immigrants, but the children of immigrants. The nephews vow to work as one and to keep the Shop alive. For Joe is dead. Long live Joe.




Theodore Roosevelt is the President. The Panama Canal construction begins. Cy Young pitches the first perfect game in Major League Baseball history. The ice cream cone is invented in St. Louis. In San Francisco, the Bank of Italy is founded. It will eventually become Bank of America. The first New Year’s Eve celebration is held at the newly re-named Times Square. Dr. Seuss, Glenn Miller, Robert Oppenheimer and Count Basie are born.

There are still 45 states in the Union.

The misspelling may be why this label was saved. It was put aside due to the spelling error & kept at Joe's home.
Brass label or stamp that was used to identify large kettles or vessels made by the Joseph Kavanagh Co. Note the misspelling.

7 thoughts on “1904 Fire and Death

  1. One of your best entries. Note however, in the 2004 research on the fire, a second death, the body of “a colored man” was found on a Pratt St. pier. The other death was a business man who suffered a heart attack while moving his goods from the path of the fire.


  2. Such a tragic time in Baltimore’s history…yet it was interesting reading as well as captivating , to the point of picturing every aspect of each of those daily entries of what was happening!!! Thankyou for sharing !!!

    Liked by 1 person

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