Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Robert M. McLane (1867-1904)
MSA SC 3520-12492

Source:  Wilbur F. Coyle, The Mayors of Baltimore (Reprinted from The Baltimore Municipal Journal, 1919), 194-201.
Robert M. McLane was Mayor of Baltimore from May 19th, 1903, to May 30th, 1904 (part term).

It was during this administration that Baltimore was visited by its great conflagration, which started February 7th, 1904, and continued until the evening of the 9th.  In fact, the ruins smoldered for several weeks, and blazes intermittently sprang up here and there. The damage has been variously estimated, one as high as $125,000,000.*  The fire originated in a dry-goods establishment of the John E. Hurst Company, corner German (now Redwood) and Sharp streets (Hopkins Place) and Liberty street, and was discovered between 10 and 11 o'clock Sunday morning, February 7th.  Almost immediately it was beyond control.  A strong wind was blowing, and within an hour eight or ten buildings on Hopkins Place or immediate neighborhood were in flames.  In an effort to stay the progress of the fire dynamite was freely used, buildings being demolished ahead of the fire line in hopes that when the flames reached the debris of the fallen structures this would constitute a barrier to its progress.  However, the fire fighters were disappointed.  The flames were not stayed to any appreciable extent by this method of fighting.  In fact, some experienced firemen asserted that the blowing up of buildings, instead of retarding the fire, helped its advance.  The flames swept eastward over the heart of the business section of the city.  The Court House, which was practically new, was badly damaged on the west side, but the Post Office and the City Hall escaped, though they were in great danger for hours.  The United States Custom House on South Gay street, then being erected, was only slightly hurt.  The fire continued its ravages for upward of 36 hours, or until 10:00 Monday night, when it burned itself out.  Jones Falls, a narrow stream, was largely instrumental in preventing the spread of the conflagration over a greater area, and thus getting into a closely populated section of East Baltimore.  All the fire apparatus of the city was in service and in addition companies came from Washington, Baltimore County, Sparrows Point, Annapolis, Philadelphia, York, Pa., Harrisburg, Chester, Altoona, New York City and Wilmington, Delaware.  The Baltimore fire, which of necessity is so briefly treated here, may very properly be ranked among the great conflagrations of modern times.

Mayor McLane had come to the Mayoralty but a few months previous to this catastrophe.  While the devastation was going on he was here, there and everywhere, urging the firemen to greater effort.  He drove from point to point in one of the Department's conveyances and summoned the militia to patrol the burnt districts and to guard safes and other valuables exposed by the fire.  He formed a Citizen's Emergency Committee, which later recommended the widening of streets and improvement of dock facilities of the City.  A Citizen's Relief Committee was also organized, and the State appropriated $250,000 for those in "actual need and want as a result of the fire."  Individual distress' however, was not widespread, and nine-tenths of this appropriation was unexpended.  No lives were lost.

The permanent improvement of the city was later carried out by the Burnt-District Commission, which, by legislative authority, was appointed March 11th, 1904.  This Commission having before it the preliminary plans of the Emergency Committee, widened, graded and paved many streets in the burnt district, and greatly improved the harbor and dock facilities of the port.  Ordinances covering these various improvements were passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor McLane after much public discussion.  At a special election held May 17th, 1904, a $6,000,000 loan for dock improvements in the burnt district was approved.  The greater part of the $4,500,000 remaining from the sale, by the city, of its interest in the Western Maryland Railroad (which was disposed of during the Hayes administration) was used in improving the devastated area.  During the fire, outside financial help to the extent of $60,000 was received, and "draw on us" telegrams increased the amount to $200,000.  Mayor McLane, however, declined all outside assistance.  Every cent went back, but the generous sentiment which prompted the givers will never be forgotten.  This aid was declined courteously, with grateful thanks, for stricken Baltimore was very grateful, but Mayor McLane voiced the sentiment of the community when he notified the world that Baltimore would take care of its own, and would rebuild through its own efforts.  This it did.  Baltimore, self-reliant, builded a new city upon the ashes of the old.

Mayor McLane was in office a short time and consequently few ordinances were passed, but measures adopted authorized the acquisition of ground and the construction of buildings for school, fire-engine and hook-and-ladder houses, respectively.  Provision was also made for portable frame buildings for Temporary school exigencies.  There was an appropriation for a storage reservoir at Forest Park or vicinity, but the site was not then selected.  This is the reservoir project which had its inception with the Hayes administration. The Mexican War (Watson) Monument was unveiled September 21st, 1903, and the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, May 2nd, 1903.

* Since there has been considerable speculative discussion as to the loss sustained in the great fire of 1904 it may be interesting and perhaps instructive to reproduce from the "Baltimore Sun" of August 7th, 1908, the following letter.  The question of loss was then (1908) being discussed in the papers and the communication give below was part of a much longer article upon the subject.


"Mr. W. Dwight Burroughs, who is writing a history of the fire, wrote Mr. Coyle, giving his views on the loss.  He said:
"'I am considerably interested in the discussion of the amount of damage done by the fire in this city, February 7th and 8th, 1904, as, in the compilation of a history of the conflagration, it has been my purpose to secure the most accurate and indisputable date. 
"'There is necessarily wide diversion of opinion as to the amount of loss sustained through the fire.  The estimates made at the time were, as a rule, very high.  Some of these ran as high as $200,000,000, which is now, admittedly, far in excess of the actual material damage.  Other estimates have ranged from $150,000,000 down to $50,000,000.  That this latter figure is far more accurate is shown by the fact that a fairly definite approximation of the value of property upon which any insurance at all was carried is $50,000,000, which is borne out by figures obtainable of the insurance underwriters.  It has been further shown that there was a great amount of property destroyed upon which there was no insurance, and this included many stocks of goods--large and small--personalty, etc. 


"'With the existing uncertainty as to the definite facts I have set forth in my work:
"The loss sustained by the City of Baltimore and its people is incalculable.  There is no mathematical rule or method applicable to conditions when the fire had spent its course that would have assured accuracy.  Even estimates of the value of buildings destroyed and the stocks that they contained necessarily have failed to definitely fix the damage done.  And when there must be considered the temporary loss of trade, the loss of salaries for weeks by thousands of wager earners and other like losses consequent upon the summary halting of business, it is clearly apparent that there exists no system of figuration competent to cope with such complications.
"'It is not difficult, however, to arrive at figures approximating the loss on the buildings that were destroyed.  Structures covering 1,343 lots of ground were burned, and the assessed valuation of these was $12,908,300.  The stocks of goods, machinery, etc., that they contained and were consumed with them were of much greater value.  The most conservative and trustworthy estimates of these values give the figures as from $85,000,000 to $110,000,000 to $125,000,000. 
"'These figures are based upon careful research and inquiry but they are open to amendment and will be revised if any data more exact than that which has been obtained can be secured.
"'Within the last few days I have come across a significant fact bearing on this subject.  I have found a statement made by an insurance man within a week after the fire to the effect that a careful survey of the loss persuaded him that the value of all property on which any insurance at all was carried was $63,000,000, and that the total loss ws $150,000,000.  Later facts have demonstrated that his $63,000,000 was cut to an even $50,000,000.  If his estimate of the total damage was as nearly correct as the other the whole loss was approximately $120,000,000."

*  *  *  *  *  * 

Robert M. McLane was born in Baltimore, November 20th, 1867, and was, therefore, one of the youngest men who held the office of Mayor.  He came of a prominent Maryland family, his uncle, Robert M. McLane, was Governor of Maryland, and was Minister to France, to which post he was appointed by President Cleveland.  The future Mayor entered the Johns Hopkins University at sixteen and was graduated at nineteen.  He took up the study of law at the University of Maryland, and was admitted to the bar in 1891.  He became Assistant State's Attorney, and then Deputy, to which office he was promoted in 1897, and was himself elected State's Attorney in 1899.  Mr. McLane in 1903 was nominated as the Democratic candidate after a stirring primary campaign between himself, Mayor Thomas G. Hayes, Ferdinand C. Latrobe and Francis E. Yewell.  The real battle, however, was between Hayes and McLane, the support of the other aspirants being nominal.  Mr. McLane was backed by the regular Democratic organization, Mr. Hayes' forces being under his own management and directed by his political leaders.  At the general election which followed Mr. McLane defeated Frank C. Wachter, Republican, by a small majority.  Mr. Wachter made a contest, carrying his case to Court, but was unsuccessful.

Mr. McLane's brief administration was much unsettled.  His election took place May 5th, 1903; he made his appointments the following fall, but before his plans were well under way, the great fire of February, 1904, occurred, wiping out the business section of the city.  Under great strain he took up the burden of rehabilitating the city, as stated heretofore.  The demands upon the Mayor taxed his energies to the utmost, and his untimely death May 30th, 1904, was a great shock to the entire community, for he was a man of fine traits, high ideals, and a most lovable character.  Mayor McLane and Mrs. Mary Van Bibber were married May 14th, 1904.

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