The last two firefighters found after the deadly 1888 Sharp Street fire
The Sharp Street warehouse fire of September 2, 1888 was under control two hours after the 4:24 a.m. alarm, but seven city firefighters were still buried under an earlier avalanche of roofs and walls. Though frantic searchers found five men that same day, it would be two days more before they found John Acomb and Thomas Wagner.
The loss of seven firefighters in a single incident stunned Baltimore.
Wagner and Acomb were both members of No. 2 Hook and Ladder Company, both lived on Diamond Street and both were later buried on the same day under identical marble gravestones. A replica of a No. 2 Hook and Ladder Company hat topped each marker. John Acomb rests in Loudon Park Cemetery (Section XXX, Plot 156) and Thomas Wagner in Baltimore Cemetery (Section AA).
The historic fire destroyed a portion of the warehouse district on the east side of Sharp Street, between Pratt and Lombard Streets. A night watchman for the Susquehanna Ice Company spotted flames at the windows of nearby E. A. Prior & Co., a toy and notion importer, and notified the fire department.
By the time No. 2 Hook and Ladder Company and No. 7 Engine Company arrived, the fire had erupted into a series of explosions. Flames spread to Levy & Sons, who manufactured straw goods and Tabb Bros. & Dimmock, hardware wholesalers.
The Baltimore Sun reported that “While some of the members of No. 2 Hook and Ladder Company were on the top floor of the four-story warehouse No.105 Sharp Street, occupied by Winkelmann & Co., wholesale druggists, cutting a hole through the wall so that a stream of water could be thrown into No. 107, the wall of No.107 fell upon the roof above the firemen. Like an avalanche, the roof and every floor in No.105 went crashing downward to the cellar, carrying the helpless firemen to death, and setting fire to the ruins.”
On September 5th, a procession of mourners made its way to Baltimore Cemetery to bury Thomas Wagner. His coffin was covered in flowers, gifts and a pillow inscribed with the word “Rest” that was given by the Baltimore City Fire Department. The remaining members of No. 2 Hook and Ladder Company were pallbearers. Fire bells tolled.
Most of the same mourners then attended John Acomb’s service later in the afternoon. His coffin was also covered in the same array of gifts, flowers and pillows. The same pallbearers from No. 2 Hook and Ladder Company accompanied his casket to Loudon Park Cemetery.
Baltimore mourned all seven firefighters in the months that followed. Donations poured in for the surviving families. The tragedy led Baltimore to take a close look at its firefighting capabilities and to make improvements. These included hiring paid firefighters, upgrading equipment and the purchase of fireboats and chemical engines.
Today, the No. 2 Hook and Ladder Company hats that rest on these two old tombstones remind us how many years that Baltimore’s first responders have given their lives to protect the city.
Official History of the Fire Department of the City of Baltimore: Together with Biographies and Portraits of Eminent Citizens of Baltimore, Clarence H. Forrest, Williams & Wilkins, 1898
Fire Bells Tolling: Burial of Wagner and Acomb, The Sun (1837-1991); Sep 6, 1888; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Baltimore Sun