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Smithson College Fire: Newspaper Reports

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Logansport Dailey Jurnal

Page 5, Wednesday morning, October 7, 1896 issue (click image to download a PDF of the page):

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The main building of the old Smithson College, better known as Michael’s College, is a complete ruin, fire having swept through the four stories and leveled the inner walls, blackened the outer walls which were left standing, and caused destruction variously estimated at from $50,000 to $65,000. The detached building to the north of the main building and the kitchen and dining room adjoining the main building on the north were alone saved from destruction. But for the unfortunate bursting of a flue in the boiler of the fire engine, the two lower floors of the main building would have been saved from complete wreck, and the loss would have been materially lessened. As it is, a few blackened walls, piles of broken brick and gaping holes where windows were, is all that is left of the handsome old college building.

The Fire Begins and is Discovered

The fire started in a small room in the northwest corner of the main building, on the third floor, used as a storage room for stationery. J. E. Williams, janitor of the buildings, was working on the lawn, raking up the fallen leaves on the north side of the campus, when he happened to glance up to the corner of the main building and saw smoke issuing from the windows. It was just 2:55 o’clock when the fire was discovered, and Mr. Williams immediately gave the alarm. The 65 students in the building rushed from the burning structure, and by the greatest of good fortune escaped serious injury. There were some 40 or 50 of them who roomed in the dormitories and all these succeeded in saving all of their personal effects.

The Firemen Respond/ Fire Steamer Gives Out

The alarm was telephoned in to the fire department and a general alarm was turned in all of the four companies responding. The steamer was also brought out as it was impossible to get pressure enough on the water mains to reach the buildings, though there is a water plug at the lower corner of the campus. The steamer was attached to the water plug, two lines of hose were strung, and the firemen were sent at the fire, which was confined to the third floor and attic so far. One line of hose was sent to the roof of the kitchen annex and the other to the roof of the detached one-story building on the north side of the main building. The pipe men directed the streams of water into the windows of the third floor and were succeeding admirably when a flue in the boiler of the steamer blew out and the department was powerless. As soon as the water ceased pouring in onto the third floor, the flames gained renewed life and within twenty minutes the whole building was a mass of flame. The sight was a grand one, though none the less a sorrowful one, and as the many hundreds who had gathered to lend what aid they could, realized that nothing could save the building from total destruction, a murmur of sympathy arose.

The Spire and Chimneys Tumble

The tall tower on the southeast corner of the building had withstood the flames, and it seemed that it would stand through the fiery baptism, but when the water ceased to pour in on the flames, the renewed heat sapped the already feeble supports and the spire fell with a thunderous crash. Two chimneys on the north side of the main building, and near the northwest corner swayed and threatened to topple with every breath of the furious gale that was blowing from the north. The supports were burned away for thirty feet from their tops, and when finally the second floor caught and blazed up angrily, a sudden strong gust of wind sent the one farthest west crashing against its neighbor and both fell into the seething mass of flame below. A great cloud of dust and smoke arose from the ruins, lighted with millions of burning brands and sparks, and lurid tongues of flame leapt to the top of the skeleton walls. The partition walls in the southwest corner fell shortly after this and carried with them the south wall of the main building.

Total Destruction

A draft was what the sluggish demon had been awaiting and as the dust and smoke cleared away after the fall of the walls, the flames darted hungrily up and within five minutes the entire first and second floors were a mass of flame.

The Fire Steamer

As soon as the flue in the steamer was blown out, by the immense pressure of steam the engineer had crowded on, the engine was uncoupled from the hydrant and hurried to town for repairs. In less than an hour the steamer was back, ready to take up the work, but the delay was fatal and no power on earth could have saved the building from being destroyed.

The steamer was still useful, however, and to its use after the repairs had been made can be attributed the fact that the whole group of buildings were not wiped out. The one-story and basement building on the north and east of the main building, and the kitchen building on the west of it were saved. The firemen kept two streams pouring on the mass of ruins until a late hour last night, two companies remaining on the spot.

Professor Michael

Prof. Michael was at home when the fire broke out, but was on the scene shortly afterward. There was nothing to do but to stand and watch the destruction of his hopes, and he had many sympathizers as the crash of falling walls and the roar of the flames almost drowned the hum of many voices. The school opened the fall term on the first Monday of September, and the prospects were exceedingly bright for a successful year. There were sixty-five or more students enrolled. The first school year had given the school a good name throughout the country, and in consequence the outlook was exceedingly bright.

Other Newspaper Articles
1940 October Logansport Press:
“Remains of College – At 3 a.m., October 6, 1896 Mr. J. E. Williams the janitor at the college discovered smoke coming from the four-story building and called for the fire department. In all four units responded but the water mains hadn’t enough pressure to reach the building. And when the boiler burst on the steam engine the fight was useless. For a month the blackened, empty bleak building stood until Professor Michael had the site leveled in November.” A “recollection on the anniversary of” article, from the occasional series “Logansport Then and Now.”

Pharos Tribune, from an interview with Inez Berry Brunegraff (1890-1989): Wils Berry’s Daughter Savors Early Memories.

“One of the most traumatic experiences she remembers the family having was the 1896 fire that destroyed the college. ‘My mother and I were shopping when that happened,’ she says, ‘She thought it might have been our house on fire when she saw the smoke. My father didn’t really lose anything in the fire, but the college was destroyed and they never rebuilt it.’”
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