ON MONDAY, JANUARY 11, 1965, a Nine-alarm fire struck the old abandoned Walton Tannery complex near Curtis Bay, located on Open Street just over the Baltimore City boundary line in Anne Arundel County, MD. The fire in the two-story, heavy-timber constructed wood building was reported at 12:30 a.m.  


(Map - Maryland Room, Enoch Pratt Free Library)

The Walton Tannery was constructed in 1920 by Charles S. Walton and Company of Philadelphia, PA. At a cost of $500,000, the 10 and-a-half-acre complex consisting of five buildings was the largest tannery operation in the United States.

The main building, or “vat house” was two stories high and 78 x 378 feet in area. Other attached buildings consisted of a boiler house, planning mill, extract and mixing room, washing and drying house.

(The large tannery structure can be seen near the middle left of the photograph - Photo - Maryland Room, Enoch Pratt Free Library)

Dead animal remains were cured, packed and transported to the tannery from all over the world. The animal fat and bone were scraped off the hides to create glue, grease and high quality fertilizer.

The animal hides were soaked in a lye solution located in deep-in-the-ground vats. Once the hair was removed it was washed, dried and packed in bales for the manufacturing of mattresses, carpets, builder’s plaster and brushes.

The hides were then dipped into tannery vats made up of chemicals and a tree bark material to tan the hides and make the leather that was mainly sold for shoes. The company produced several million dollars of leather each year.


(Company 31, Brooklyn's Engine 311, '65 Peter Pirsch, 1250 gpm/300 gal. water-tank. And  Truck 315, '60 Peter Pirsch, 85 feet/aerial would have been first-due on both fires along with BCFD Engine 57 - Photo of engine - Charles Urban, truck, Johnny Floyd II)

On a cold snowy Monday, January 11, 1965, a Baltimore City FD street box was pulled in the 5700 block of Pennington Avenue. The huge, now abandon main tannery building was burning. Within a couple of hours the fire escalated to nine-alarms. The city sent 125 firefighters and Anne Arundel County sent roughly 400.

AACo.FD Engineman Melvin Morrison would later share with me that they humped supply line and a portable monitor pipe along the side of the building. Morrison said that every time the crew hooked the lines up for water there was always a problem and they had to disconnect and add hose to keep up with the advancing fire. This occurred a number of times before an adequate water supply was established and the frustrated crew could apply water to the fire.

A city fire boat was brought up to the Curtis Bay side of Pennington Avenue and many lines were laid from the boat to the fire. Firefighters had to dig slits under the B&O railroad tracks, and the hose was passed through under the rails due to active freight trains.

When BCFD Fire Chief John J. Killen arrived on location and found out that the fire was located in Anne Arundel County, it was said that he went “ballistic.” He approached Harry Klasmeier, the new fire administrator of the young AACo.FD and asked, “Who in the $#%&$# is going to pay for this?” Klasmeier responded, “Not me.” And Killen turned around mumbled some more "colorful" words and walked away. Nothing else was ever said.

In August of 1966, what was left of the huge tannery complex burned down to the ground. BCFD had one to two alarms on location. AACo. responded with two to three alarms.


(It is believed that Linthicum, Company 32's Engine 322, Mack, 1,000 gpm pumper with 600 gal. water tank responded to both fires and was operated by Engineman Raymond W. Smith at the fire in August '66.  Photo - Jim Atkinson)

At one of the fires it was said that Engineman Raymond Smith, with 32’s engine on the hydrant at Open Street or at the fire boat, stacked three or four mueshaw valves, supplying different AACo.FD companies and charged the fittings all at once. (It must have not been a good idea because in the “Mueshaw Valve to Hydrant, AACo.FD, operations procedure that Smith drafted (as the training chief) in 1970, the stacking of mueshaws was prohibited).

John August of “I Grew Up in Brooklyn Park” Facebook Group said he used to play in the abandon buildings as a kid. He said the building was painted red and you could see the entire complex from the front steps to Saint Athanasius Roman Catholic Church located on the corner of Church and Prudence streets. A steel water tower that stood over the plant could be seen from the intersection of Ritchie Highway and Old Ordnance Road before it was torn down in the early 1970s.

The engines from AACo. that most likely responded to the ’66 fire on the first alarm in addition to Company 31 are provided (photos) here.

(Engine 341, Ferndale (’55 Ward La France, 1,000 gpm, courtesy of Joe MacDonald/Mike Defina)

On one of the fires, Engineman John Hoy - Company 34 - retired, said that he couldn’t even get the engine into the fire since there were so many city engines on Open Street. 

(Engine 331, ’61 Ward La France. Photo courtesy of Joe MacDonald)

I would like to thank Harry Klasmeier, John August and Tom Cunningham for their assistance and contribution to this article.

2014 Comments on Facebook Post

Maureen Walsh Higgins - "Yet another interesting story. Long before my move to Maryland but fascinating history."

Butch Lawall - If I  remember right, the '65 fire was on a Sunday night while the volunteer firefighters was bowling league was happening at Ritchie Fair Lanes. We could see the fire in the sky from the bowling alley. Many of us rushed back to the station and responded with the "Lil Mack" (E-323)  on the Third Alarm. Tom German was driving that night and I remember that we pulled a lot of hose. We proceeded up Aspen Street, pulled hose beneath the tracks while 55 gal sized drums were exploding and flying through the air. 

(Linthicum's Engine 323 - the "Lil Mack," 500 gpm, 500 gal. water tank - Photo - Tom German)

Michael Ripnick - I remember that fire. I had gone to bed around 11 or so...my room was upstairs facing south, when the siren went off at the firehouse. I could see an orange glow to the east...it was from that fire. No "black snow" this time, Joe!

Patrick Gilligan - Thanks for another piece of AACOFD history. [we are] lucky to have you interested in this department's history to keep it going. I always get something out of them even though some occurred before I was born., lol, this one just happened to be the year I was born.


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