The Great College Fire

Ruins of Seminary Building, MHC ArchivesThe following is a longer version of Chapter 11 in The Button Field:

From Prospect Hill, the lazy curls of smoke hanging in the still air above the courtyard were barely visible. To drowsy eyes, lulled by a full day of Sabbath decorum, they hardly registered. To dreamy minds, they might have been tufts of disintegrating cloud drifting slowly to earth. Except that the wisps rose upward and they quickly grew into darker, fatter billows.

Miss Josephine Pinney, a sophomore, sitting at the desk in her room on the second floor of the north wing, took a break from the letter she was writing. She flexed the tired fingers of her right hand, and glanced absently through the window. She looked to her left, over the short distance to the gymnasium wing that formed the eastern boundary of the courtyard.  It took a moment or two for Josephine to realize that smoke was pouring from its windows and not from the tall chimney of the boiler house behind the gym.

Miss Netta Haffner, assistant in Chemistry, was accompanying her friend Florence Purrington, who taught Mathematics, on a trip through the storeroom located underneath the gymnasium. They were on their way to retrieve some items of freshly washed laundry from the drying room, a stifling windowless place fitted with steam pipes and heavy pine clothes horses. Miss Purrington, feeling the sticky brush of a spider web against her face, waved her hand and looked up. She grabbed her companion’s arm, wordlessly pointing at skittering flames visible through the widely spaced floorboards above their heads.

In a dark, cramped chamber on the floor below the drying room, Mr. George Battersby, the college engineer, finished his inspection of the building’s electric dynamos, quiet now and not scheduled to be reactivated until sunset.  He wiped his hands on a greasy rag and thought of the supper waiting for him at home. If he hurried, he could make it there and back in time. He stuffed the rag in his back pocket, then caught something strange in the air. Engineer Battersby followed the woody, pungent smell into the adjacent engine room where the apparatus for the building’s hydraulic elevator was housed. He fanned both hands in the air around his head, stirring the smoke that filled the room into graceful eddies, and saw a pair of delicate flames lick a fat iron pipe that carried steam from the boiler house.

“Fire!” he shouted as he searched the cluttered space for an extinguisher but found none.

“Mr. Wells! Mr. Allen!” he called, but the superintendent of the college and his assistant were not within earshot.

Through gagging coughs, Engineer Battersby kept up his cries as he hurried from the engine room, his eyes stinging and nearly blinded by the thickening smoke that had begun to stink as much of oil as of wood.

Miss Purrington seemed transfixed by the play of bright flame until Miss Haffner, slightly older and more level-headed, took her by the hand and pulled her back in the direction they had come. Close as they were to it, Miss Haffner did not want to pass through the drying room to get to the door leading into the south wing. “Fire!” both women screamed as they careered past ramshackle piles of broken furniture, past hummocks of dust-covered rugs, past stacks of storage trunks and clusters of haphazardly parked bicycles.

Josephine remembered the instructions she and other students had been given last October when one of the girls, striking a match after the electric lights had been turned off, set fire to her curtains. After an initial frenzy of ineffective activity—one girl threw water, pitcher and all, into the flames—the college’s recently organized fire brigade took over, successfully wrestling a leaky hose into position and manning a bucket brigade.

The next morning, Mrs. Mead had praised the girls’ heroic efforts but reminded the assembled students and faculty that someone should have sounded an alarm. She suggested that they familiarize themselves with the electric boxes spaced at intervals along the corridors. Now Josephine dashed out of her room to the nearest alarm box, just a few feet down the hall, and triggered the bell. Nothing happened.

“Fire!” she shrieked. “There’s a fire in the gym!”

Superintendent Wells and Mr. Allen joined Engineer Battersby at the southeast corner of the building, outside the shed attached to the gymnasium wing that housed the boilers, the steam pump and the college’s water tank.  News of trouble at the college had spread to the village and someone started the church bells ringing.  The men who worked for the college and men from the village appeared, breathless and eager, ready to do whatever they were able. Some brought buckets, filled or empty, and those who could threw their meager contents onto the flames that darted from the windows of the gymnasium.

“Get the hoses!”

All available hoses were assembled and the resultant length attached to the water tank. A weak stream of water, barely able to reach the flames, trickled out.

“Has anyone called to Holyoke?!”

“There’s smoke coming out of the gym, you know,” Eva reported nonchalantly as she stuck her head into a parlor on the first floor of the west wing where Helen Calder was lustily singing hymns. Mabel Eaton was there too, playing accompaniment on the piano as the assembled girls practiced for a class prayer meeting scheduled for later in the week. The news of possible fire far away in the easternmost section of the building did not unduly alarm the girls. They calmly dispersed, some going first to the chapel windows or to the courtyard to watch the excitement and others, especially those housed in the north and south wings closest to potential danger, leaving to check on their rooms.

Helen, as chief officer of the Sports Association, was also responsible for organizing the student fire brigade and was now fiercely disappointed that she hadn’t managed to do so this early in the term. Still, she felt a personal responsibility to find as many of last year’s brigade as possible and with them battle the blaze. Her jaw tight with determination, she raced to her room at the top of the north wing to change into her gym clothes.

The call for help was placed by Superintendent Wells from the telephone in the office of the college registrar because he could not get to his own, now blocked by smoke and flames. News of a problem in the little village five miles away was relayed to Holyoke’s High Street Fire House, where Alarm Box Sixty-one was triggered to alert the South Main Street and the Emerald houses as well. At the sound of these alarms, the men abandoned their firehouse chores and snapped into action.

The automatic doors of the stalls where the horses stood, placidly chewing, flew open and the animals ran without instruction to their assigned apparatus. The thicker, heavier pairs went to the steam-engines, the smaller ones to the hose wagons and they waited, eager but controlled, below their suspended harnesses. The harnesses dropped onto the backs of the horses and, within three minutes, the sturdy grays and chestnuts, wide and deep in the chest with big round hips, were buckled and ready to go.

But Holyoke’s Fire Chief Lynch was out enjoying a leisurely afternoon drive with his wife. For almost an hour he was unavailable to give permission for his equipment to cross the line from Hamden into Hampshire County—a line that ran through the center of the Connecticut River–and so the harnessed horses snorted and fidgeted and the men in helmets and boots stood by, idle and impatient.

On her way down to the fire, Helen was joined by other fire brigade girls in short and sturdy woolen gym skirts. They made their way to the kitchen, located in a two-story addition attached to the east end of the north wing and separated from it by a thick brick wall, in search of extinguishers, both large metal Babcocks and small glass grenades. The smoke grew denser as they neared the kitchen and by the time they were out in the courtyard with their pockets and hands filled with grenades, all the girls were breathless and squinting through stinging, teary eyes.

Helen and another girl grappled with the Babcock’s tarnished brass canister while the others threw the glass globes into the fire. There they exploded in gaseous bursts of water, bicarbonate of soda and sulfuric acid that had no visible effect on the flames that now danced in graceful arabesques from all the windows of the gym.

Helen inverted the canister as she had learned to do and held it by its handle on the bottom. With her other hand she pointed the extinguisher’s short nozzle at the burning building while her assistant, awkwardly squatting, tried without success to unscrew its valve, now upside down.

“How does this thing work ?!”

Helen handed the canister to the other girl and took her place. With one twist she opened the extinguisher, whose contents sprayed, impotent, over the ground.

The corridors of both the north and south wings were by now choked with women and girls as well as smoke. Teachers moved quickly from room to room, knocking and then opening each door, advising students to gather their most precious possessions and leave the building immediately. A few of the older girls laughed at such hysteria, confident that the fire walls at the eastern end of both wings would limit whatever damage the building might suffer to the gymnasium and its appendages.

Still, those with rooms closest to the fire were concerned that the smell of smoke would cling to their clothes and they did as they were instructed. They piled their skirts and waists, jackets, underclothes and books onto sheets and couch covers and, after tying them into lumpy bundles, tossed them out the nearest window.

In almost every room, the value of each dearly purchased item or sentimental gift was examined and weighed. Was it worth the trouble to take down every picture, only to have to rehang each one once the fire was extinguished? Wasn’t it better to leave the freshly pressed shirtwaist hanging in the closet, given how far away that closet was from any danger? What to do with the bottles of ink, the jars of olives, the notebooks and pens, the tea sets, pillows, lamps?

There was no panic, no screaming or fainting and figures moved through the thick gray air like frenetic wraiths. Men for whom these virginal halls were usually forbidden entered rooms without permission, carrying off desks, rocking chairs, whatever odd furnishings or ornaments could be easily grabbed and then left in haphazard groups on the campus lawns.

The fire, begun so stealthily and secretly in the dark, feeding on desiccated timber and dust, was exuberant now. It played merrily through the gymnasium, climbing the ropes that hung from the exposed beams of the ceiling, jumping and somersaulting along the polished floorboards, dashing from the wooden rowing machines on the ground to the balcony high along the wall. It waved its black smoke and its bright flames like banners through the shattered windows and it forced its way through the brick walls into the south and then the north wings and up the cramped stairwells and the elevator shaft. Then, in a final explosion of ferocious glee, it burst through the old gym’s roof and brought it, cracking and groaning, down.

Fire Chief Lynch returned from his drive to news of the fire and a light, fast buggy and driver waiting to take him to the scene. Seconds behind, Holyoke’s three steam engines sped along the canals, down the city’s busy streets, over the bridge and past the dam.  The drivers held tight to the reins as the fire horses, glad to be galloping at last, dragged the huge four-wheeled steam engines past knots and clusters of cheering, clapping people. The bell on each red engine clanged and reverberated and rolling swells of dark smoke streamed from the cylindrical head of each black boiler whose brass fittings gleamed in the sun.

But the route was uphill, the steam engines were heavy and the horses winded by the time they reached Bridge Street in South Hadley Falls, only halfway to the college. The lighter hose wagons, laden only with coils of cotton-covered rubber, brass nozzles, iron couplings, and fire axes arrived at their destination in time to witness the collapse of the gymnasium’s roof while the steamer companies still waited impatiently for the hitching of fresh horses.

An hour and a half after the alarm reached Holyoke, the three steam-engines, their second teams panting and foaming, crossed the south lawn of the college and joined the hose wagons outside the pump house and the college’s boilers, both strangely untouched by the flames. The local men still scurried with their buckets, back and forth to the building’s water tank. The Holyoke hose companies in black slickers and long-brimmed leather helmets ran to the meet the steamers whose pumps would suck water from the tank and force it in powerful, steady streams through the flaccid hoses.

Superintendent Wells gratefully passed responsibility for the firefighting to Chief Lynch who strode onto the scene magnificent in a white slicker and a white helmet topped by a gilded eagle.

Chief Lynch ordered his men to attach the hoses, a line to each steamer.

The two men on each line braced themselves for a rush of water to fill and animate the lengths of hose they gripped. The water gushed in arcing streams, falling on the flames that crept along the roof and walls of the south wing. The flames drew back and ducked, spitting and sizzling, and a small cheer, hopeful rather than exultant, escaped from the men and boys who had worked so desperately with so little success.

But the firemen, wrestling to control the writhing hoses, found, after a time, that they grew tamer in their hands. Slowly, the hoses softened and sagged. The torrents slowed to streams and then trickles. There was no more water in the tank to pump.

The Holyoke firemen again hitched their teams, who had been resting nearby, alert but calm, unfazed by the smoke, the flames or the men’s frenetic activity.  They drove one of the steamers to the lake at the foot of Prospect Hill, fifteen hundred feet down a gentle slope. The other two they positioned at equal intervals between the lake and the burning building and, planning to use the second and third steamers to add force to the water sucked out of the lake by the first, began to lay the three thousand feet of hose necessary to make two lines.

The fire was no longer playful. It was hungry and impatient and, in no mood to be distracted, shrugged off the streams of water. With single-minded gluttony, it raced forward through the parallel wings, sucking on old roof beams until they shriveled, licking plaster and lath walls until they disappeared. It kicked over oil lamps and barely noticed the explosions.  It crashed out windows with its elbows, tore down brick cornices with its fingers, fouled the air with its thick, sour breath. And when it had devoured everything it could in the north and the south wings, leaving brick walls like brittle husks, it followed its gargantuan appetite westward and feasted on Mary Lyon’s dream.

By sunset, the heart of the Seminary building, that sturdy box built sixty years earlier for Mount Holyoke’s first daughters, surrendered to the fire. Its walls and windows were invisible behind the flames, tall and twisted as monstrous trees. Billows of black smoke twinkling with golden sparks poured into the darkening, red-streaked sky.  The burning building lit up the surrounding countryside and its glow could be seen as far away as Springfield, thirteen miles down river to the south.

At seven-fifteen. the roof beams and the great center cupola, proudly built in 1860, came crashing down. Then, one by one, the big chimneys tottered and wavered. Each struggled to stay upright, like a drunkard fighting for dignity, but each ultimately fell. Two lurched forward and shattered on the lawn.  The others shuddered and collapsed where they stood, telescoping downward into the flames.

The crowd had grown steadily since news of the fire first spread outward from South Hadley until it numbered in the thousands, more people elbowing each other on the main street and village green than had come to celebrate the Civil War monument unveiled just five days earlier. The electric cars left Holyoke dangerously overfilled until that city’s Street Railway Company put additional trolleys into service to handle the demand. Any man or boy with a bicycle pedaled up as fast as he could, families hitched their horses to wagons, carts and carriages, those with no other transportation walked or ran along dusty lanes and paths until they reached the excitement.

While the sun was shining and the fire burned merrily in the building’s rear, the crowd had been happily entertained. Children laughed as they watched an old lady teacher carry Mary Lyon’s portrait to safety, holding the framed canvas in front of her like a shield. Everyone who saw her chuckled at the strapping student who emerged from the building burdened with two tennis rackets and a shotgun. Men and women cheered in approval as the police dragged a ragged hobo, caught pilfering from one of the big white bundles that littered the lawns, off to jail.

But now they stood in silence with darkness behind them and searing flames reflected on their skin and in their eyes. The heat had driven them back, past the line of elm trees with scorched bark and shriveled leaves, and across the wide unpaved street. The air that day had been calm and still, but now the fire itself created violent gusts and drafts that sent the flames roaring and whistling in sheets hundreds of feet high. The walls of the building, still standing, formed a massive chimney that shot cinders like a meteor shower into the air and onto the roofs of the wooden houses across the street and the heads and shoulders of the watching people.

By nine o’clock, most of the Holyoke firemen had been relieved of duty, along with the South Hadley Falls hook and ladder company and the Northampton men who had arrived in time to save the college library, demolishing the corridor that connected it to the main building. By eleven-thirty, most of the onlookers and the helpful volunteers had left and the homeless Mount Holyoke faculty and students had found shelter, some with generous villagers, some in the town’s schoolhouse, some in the college’s remaining buildings.  Portions of  Seminary Hall kept falling until midnight and those sections that did not succumb remained as lonely sentinels over the ruins.  By one o’clock the streets of the village were empty except for a few firemen who kept watch all night, dousing the tenacious flames that occasionally burst from the lingering pall of black smoke, and the policemen who guarded the deserted grounds, decorated with their ghostly furnishings

To research this chapter, I used the following sources in the collection of the MHC Archives & Special Collections, including:

  • essays published in college yearbook, Llamarada 1898: “Before and After,”  “The Situation of the Late Problem,” “Of Psychological Import.”;
  •  articles published in the college’s monthly magazine, The Mount Holyoke, October, 1896: E,B.P, “The Story of the Fire,” Jane Brodie Carpenter, “All Hail! To Holyoke Tried and True!,”;
  • unpublished student essays: Jessie W. Stebbins, “The Beginning of the Year, September 17-27, 1896,” M. Isabelle Matson, “The Day After the Fire,” Mabel A. Finch, “The Fire”:
  • unpublished student letters: fragment of unidentified student letter, September 28, 1896, Edith Carter, September 30, 1896, Amy Roberts, September 28, 1896, Helen Newton, September 28, 1896, Helen Calder, September 28, 1896;
  • pamphlet by Dr. Mary Chandler Lowell, “Story of the Big Fire, Mount Holyoke College, September 27, 1896” (published 1946);
  • newspaper reports: Springfield Republican, September 28, 1896, Easthampton News, October 2, 1896.