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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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School Fires

by Diana Barrett

School fires were common everywhere in the country, and no location or social class was exempt. From poor, one-room rural schoolhouses to upscale finishing schools for Eastern ladies, from East to West and North to South all types of school buildings were susceptible. The Russell Sage Foundation issued a report, quoted in the Grand Rapids Press, and by making safety recommendations, hoped to draw attention to the lack of fire protection found in the public schools. During the early twentieth century, every week of the year ten schoolhouses in the country were partially destroyed or burned to the ground. “Many fires originated in school basements where waste paper, old furniture, ashes and coal were heaped together close beneath wooden floor beams.” [1]

The first school fire in Grand Rapids was the complete destruction of the District No. 1 schoolhouse, located on E. Fulton at Jefferson, in February of 1849. A letter to the editor of the Grand Rapids Eagle noted, “Many appeared with buckets, as though they had intended to use them, yet very few appeared to comprehend the idea that water would check the progress of fire . . . No one was present with authority to organize a direct action, and consequently every one who felt disposed went to work on his own . . . Twenty men, properly organized, with a ladder and buckets to form a line to a well in the vicinity, would in all probability have extinguished it in ten minutes.” [2] At that time there was no organized volunteer fire brigade, but perhaps the loss of the schoolhouse inspired the citizens, as the following year three volunteer fire brigades were organized in the village.

In December of 1878 South Division School burned. “The structure was of wood and the flames were well under way before the alarm was turned in. The firemen responded to the call with their usual alacrity, but the building was completely destroyed . . . The building contained five school rooms with limited halls and closets and had sittings for about 225 pupils. It was an old structure and the loss to the city will probably be small.”[3]

However, the Board of Education reported, “[S. Division] damaged by fire in December of 1878 was repaired for $371. The building is a disgrace, unfit for school purposes, rooms are low and without ventilation.”[4] That the “completely destroyed” school was repaired illustrates the dire need for space in the public schools.

One school fire changed everything. In North Collinwood, Ohio 173 primary school children and several teachers died in the tragic winter blaze of 1908. It had a double impact on Grand Rapids. The story of the Collinwood fire, reported on the front page of both the Herald and Press, was adjacent to an article about a fire at Central High School. A blaze in the basement—at first blamed on the janitor, not an uncommon accusation—occurred during school hours. No one was injured and Principal Davis managed to evacuate fifteen hundred students safely.[5]

The Central building was overcrowded. There were only two exits from the school, one on Ransom St. and the other on Lyon St. All rooms on the upper floors led to the central staircase, the only exit to the lower floors. A congested stairway in the Collinwood School was the principle cause of the large number of deaths.

Fire escapes were located on the east, north, and south sides of the Central School, but later investigation revealed that some of the windows opening to the fire escapes were locked, and some of the others were not easily opened. Due to the icy conditions at least one of the fire escapes would have been useless even if it could have been accessed.

The morning Herald wrote the next day, “Following as it did on the heels of the Collinwood tragedy near Cleveland, the news of the alarm of fire from the Central High School building created a panic in the downtown district, even after it was extinguished and the fact made known that none of the pupils had been in any dangers, a thrill of horror prevailed the entire community in view of what might have been.”[6]

In response to ‘the danger from fire and its attendant panics’ the Board of Education called a special session on March 9th during which they promised ‘immediate action and far reaching improvements’ in existing school conditions. A commission of five members, three citizens and two board members, were appointed to carefully investigate the conditions in all public school buildings giving special attention to:

Exits from buildings, including direction the outside doors swing; direction of swing of classroom doors; capacity and number of stairways; fire escapes and their capacity; heating apparatus; fire extinguishers; fire drills; crowded conditions at Central High School; and the advisability of finishing an assembly room on the third floor of Diamond School.

At the same meeting the report of the Building Committee advised and adopted the immediate construction of a new stairway in the high school, and the extension of the fire escape on the south side of the building to the fourth floor.

Over a two-week period the fire commission, created by the board, investigated every public school building. The faults and dangers are too numerous to mention, but the most egregious were: narrow halls and stairways; stairways pierced by iron smokestacks; and lack of exits. By May plans were afoot to add fire protection by purchasing fifty fire extinguishers, and $500 was authorized for other safeguards. More extensive work would be accomplished over the summer break.

The Board had barely begun addressing the recommendations of the fire commission when their vulnerability was exposed again. Only months after the Collinwood disaster, gale-force winds fanning sparks from a barn fire, spreading them across a West Side neighborhood, burning homes in a nighttime blaze, left in its wake the shell of Turner School. The Board became stunningly aware that one safeguard had been neglected in the fire commission’s report; the building was not insured.

The ashes of Turner School were barely cold when an article faulted the school board for making the new building only “partially fireproof even after the fearful lesson of Collinwood.”[7] And the following year the usual push-pull between safety and budget appeared when the business committee declared that the improvements outlined by the fire commission were expensive and not absolutely necessary in some schools. It recommended that the board abandon these changes. One member called attention to the responsibility Board members would assume by taking such action in case a calamity should occur. A vote was postponed for further investigation.[8]

The work confronting the Board for the summer of 1908 was greater than it had ever faced before. In addition to extensive safety recommendations by the fire commission, which included constructing new stairways in some buildings, new schools were to be started, Turner School rebuilt, additions completed for two schools, and of course the normal renovating, painting, and other tasks that were usually attended to during the vacation period.

Fire escapes were installed in several buildings, and South Division School was one of them. During fire drills the children would go down them cautiously, even gingerly, and were relieved when they reached the last step safely. Realizing this would be a hazard during a real fire, principal Helen Sauers devised an ingenious plan. The children were told they could use the fire escapes as a regular entry and exit to the building. In no time they were scampering up and down the metal stairs without a care.[9]

“The practice of using fire escapes at South Division School as a means of ingress and egress for the children,” was discontinued in 1916 when the Board of Health ordered the practice to be stopped.[10]


[1] GR Press, 3/13/1914.

[2] GR Eagle, 3/3/1849

[3] GR Times, 12/14/1878

[4] Bd. of Ed. 1878-79 Annual Report

[5] GR Press, 3/5/1908

[6] GR Herald, 3/6/1908

[7] GR Press, 6/15/1908

[8] GR Press, 4/27/1909

[9] GR Press, 11/6/1909

[10] GR Press, 12/20/1916


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