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   Chapter 5 THE FIRE AN INTERLUDE

The Story of Wellesley By Florence Converse Characters: 18489

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


On the morning of March 17, 1914, College Hall, the oldest and largest building on the Wellesley campus, was destroyed by fire. No one knows how the fire originated; no one knows who first discovered it. Several people, in the upper part of the house, seem to have been awakened at about the same time by the smoke, and all acted with clear-headed promptness. The night was thick with fog, and the little wind "that heralds the dawn" was not strong enough to disperse the heavy vapors, else havoc indeed might have been wrought throughout the campus and the sleeping village.

At about half past four o'clock, two students at the west end of College Hall, on the fourth floor, were awakened and saw a fiery glow reflected in their transom. Getting up to investigate, they found the fire burning in the zoological laboratory across the corridor, and one of them immediately set out to warn Miss Tufts, the registrar, and Miss Davis, the Director of the Halls of Residence, both of whom lived in the building; the other girl hurried off to find the indoor watchman. At the same time, a third girl rang the great Japanese bell in the third floor center. In less than ten minutes after this, every student was out of the building.

The story of that brief ten minutes is packed with self-control and selflessness; trained muscles and minds and souls responded to the emergency with an automatic efficiency well-nigh unbelievable. Miss Tufts sent the alarm to the president, and then went to the rooms of the faculty on the third floor and to the officers of the Domestic Department on the second floor. Miss Davis set a girl to ringing the fast-fire alarm. And down the four long wooden staircases the girls in kimonos and greatcoats came trooping, each one on the staircase she had been drilled to use, after she had left her room with its light burning and its corridor door shut. In the first floor center the fire lieutenants called the roll of the fire squads, and reported to Miss Davis, who, to make assurance doubly sure, had the roll called a second time. No one said the word "fire"-this would have been against the rules of the drill. For a brief space there was no sound but "the ominous one of falling heavy brands." When Miss Davis gave the order to go out, the students walked quietly across the center, with embers and sparks falling about them, and went out on the north side through the two long windows at the sides of the front door.

And all this in ten minutes!

Meanwhile, Professor Calkins, who does not live at the college but had happened to spend the night in the Psychology office on the fifth floor, had been one of the earliest to awake, had wakened other members of the faculty and helped Professor Case and her wheel-chair to the first floor, and also had sent a man with an ax to break in Professor Irvine's door, which was locked. As it happened, Professor Irvine was spending the night in Cambridge, and her room was not occupied. Most of the members of the faculty seem to have come out of the building as soon as the students did, but two or three, in the east end away from the fire, lingered to save a very few of their smaller possessions.

The students, once out, were not allowed to re-enter the building, and they did not attempt to disobey, but formed a long fire line which was soon lengthened by girls from other dormitories and extended from the front of College Hall to the library. Very few things above the first floor were saved, but many books, pictures, and papers went down this long line of students to find temporary shelter in the basement of the library. Associate Professor Shackford, who wrote the account of the fire in the College News, from which these details are taken, tells us how Miss Pendleton, patrolling this busy fire line and questioning the half-clad workers, was met with the immediate response, even from those who were still barefooted, "I'm perfectly comfortable, Miss Pendleton", "I'm perfectly all right, Miss Pendleton." Miss Shackford adds:

"At about five o'clock, a person coming from the hill saw College Hall burning between the dining-room and Center, apparently from the third floor up to the roof, in high, clear flames with very little smoke. Suddenly the whole top seemed to catch fire at once, and the blaze rushed downward and upward, leaping in the dull gray atmosphere of a foggy morning. With a terrific crash the roof fell in, and soon every window in the front of College Hall was filled with roaring flames, surging toward the east, framed in the dark red brick wall which served to accentuate the lurid glow that had seized and held a building almost one eighth of a mile long. The roar of devastating fury, the crackle of brands, the smell of burning wood and melting iron, filled the air, but almost no sound came from the human beings who saw the irrepressible blaze consume everything but the brick walls.

"The old library and the chapel were soon filled with great billows of flame, which, finding more space for action, made a spectacle of majestic but awful splendor. Eddies of fire crept along the black-walnut bookcases, and all that dark framework of our beloved old library. By great strides the blaze advanced, until innumerable curling, writhing flames were rioting all through a spot always hushed 'in the quiet and still air of delightful studies.' The fire raged across the walls, in and around the sides and the beautiful curving tops of the windows that for so many springs and summers had framed spaces of green grass on which fitful shadows had fallen, to be dreamed over by generations of students. In the chapel, tremendous waves swelled and glowed, reaching almost from floor to ceiling, as they erased the texts from the walls, demolished the stained-glass windows, defaced, but did not completely destroy the college motto graven over them, and, in convulsive gusts swept from end to end of the chapel, pouring in and out of the windows in brilliant light and color. Seen from the campus below, the burning east end of the building loomed up magnificent even in the havoc and desolation it was suffering."

At half past eight o'clock, four hours after the first alarm was sounded, there stood on the hill above the lake, bare, roofless walls and sky-filled arches as august as any medieval castle of Europe. Like Thomas the Rhymer, they had spent the night in fairyland, and waked a thousand years old. Romance already whispered through their dismantled, endless aisles. King Arthur's castle of Camelot was not more remote from to-day than College Hall from the twentieth-century March morning. Weeks, months, a little while it stood there, vanishing-like old enchanted Merlin-into the impenetrable prison of the air. There will be other houses on that hilltop, but never one so permanent as the dear house invisible; the double Latin cross, the ten granite columns, the Center ever green with ageless palms, the "steadfast crosses, ever pointing the heavenward way",-to eyes that see, these have never disappeared.

At half past eight o'clock, in the crowded college chapel, President Pendleton was saying to her dazed and stricken flock, "We know that all things work together for good to them that love God,-who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" And when she had given thanks, in prayer, for so many lives all blessedly safe, there came the announcement, so quiet, so startling, that the spring term would begin on April 7, the date already set in the college calendar. This was the voice of one who actually believed that faith would remove mountains. And it did. By the faith of President Pendleton, Wellesley College is alive to-day. She did literally and actually cast the mountain into the sea on that seventeenth of March, 1914. St. Patrick himself never achieved a greater miracle.

She knew that two hundred and sixteen people were houseless; that the departments of Zoology, Geology, Physics, and Psychology, had lost their laboratories, their equipment, their lecture rooms; that twenty-eight recitation rooms, all the administrative offices, the offices of twenty departments, the assembly hall, the study hall, had all been swept away. Yet, in a little less than three weeks, there had sprung up on the campus a temporary building containing twenty-nine lecture and recitation rooms, thirteen department offices, fifteen administrative offices, three dressing rooms, and a reception room. Plumbing, steam heat, electricity, and telephone service had been installed. A week after college opened for the spring term, classes were meeting in the new building. During that first week, offices and classes had been scattered all over the campus,-in the Society houses, in the basements of dormitories, the Art Building, the Chemistry Building, the Gymnasium, the basement of the Library, the Observatory, the Stone Hall Botany Laboratories, Billings Hall; all had opened their doors wide. The two hundred and sixteen residents of old College Hall had all been housed on the campus; it meant doubling up in single rooms, but the doublets persuaded themselves and the rest of the college that it was a lark.

This spirit of helpfulness and cheer began on the day of the fire, and se

ems to have acquired added momentum with the passing months. Clothes, books, money, were loaned as a matter of course. By half past nine o'clock in the morning, the secretary of the dean had written out from memory the long schedule of the June examinations, to be posted at the beginning of the spring term. Members of the faculty were conducting a systematic search for salvage among the articles that had been dumped temporarily in the "Barn" and the library; homes had been found for the houseless teachers, most of whom had lost everything they possessed; several members of the faculty had no permanent home but the college, and their worldly goods were stored in the attic from which nothing could be saved. It is said that when President Pendleton, in chapel, told the students to go home as soon as they had collected their possessions, "an unmistakable ripple of girlish laughter ran through the dispossessed congregation." This was the Franciscan spirit in which Wellesley women took their personal losses. For the general losses, all mourned together, but with hope and courage. In the Department of Physics, all the beautiful instruments which Professor Whiting had been so wisely and lovingly procuring, since she first began to equip her student-laboratory in 1878, were swept away; Geology and Psychology suffered only less; but the most harrowing losses were those in the Department of Zoology, where, besides the destruction of laboratories and instruments, and the special library presented to the department by Professor Emeritus Mary A. Willcox, "the fruits of years of special research work which had attracted international attention have been destroyed.... Professor Marion Hubbard had devoted her energies for six years to research in variation and heredity in beetles.... In view of the increasing interest in eugenics, scientists awaited the results with keen anticipation, but all the specimens, notes, and apparatus were swept away." Professor Robertson, the head of the department, who is an authority on certain deep-sea forms of life, had just finished her report on the collections from the dredging expedition of the Prince of Monaco, which had been sent her for identification; and the report and the collections all were lost.

Among the few things saved were some of the ivies and the roses which the classes had planted year by year; these the fire had not injured; and a slip from the great wistaria vine on the south side of College Hall has proved to be alive and vigorous. The alumnae gavel and the historic Tree Day spade were also unharmed. But that no life was lost outweighs all the other losses, and this was due to the fire drill which, in one form or another, has been carried on at Wellesley since the earliest years of the college. Doctor Edward Abbott, writing of Wellesley in Harper's Magazine for August, 1876, says:

"Whoever heard of a fire brigade manned by women? There is one at Wellesley, for it is believed that however incombustible the college building may be, the students should be taught to put out fire,... and be trained to presence of mind and familiarity with the thought of what ought to be done in case of fire." From time to time the drill has been strengthened and changed in detail, but in 1902, when Miss Olive Davis, Director of Houses of Residence, was appointed by Miss Hazard to be responsible for an efficient fire drill, the modern system was instituted. An article in College News explains that "the organization of the present fire-drill system is much like the old one. With the adoption of Student Government, it was put into the hands of the students. Each year a fire chief is elected from the student-body, by the students. This girl is a senior. She is counted an officer of the Student Government Association, and is responsible to Miss Davis. Then at meetings held at the beginning of the fall term, each dormitory elects one fire captain, who in turn appoints lieutenants under her,-one for every twenty or twenty-five girls.

"The directions for a fire drill are:

"Upon hearing the alarm (five rings of the house bell),

"1. Close your windows, doors, and transoms.

"2. Turn on the electric lights.

"3. March in single file, and as quickly as possible, downstairs, and answer to your roll call.

"Each lieutenant is responsible for all the girls on her list. After the ringing of the alarm, she must look into every room in her district and see that the directions have been complied with and the inmates have gone downstairs. If the windows and doors have not been shut, she must shut them. Then she goes downstairs and calls her roll (some lieutenants memorize their lists). When the lieutenants have finished, the captain calls the roll of the lieutenants, asking for the number absent in each district, and the number of windows and doors left open or lights not lighted, if any.

"The captains are required to hold two drills a month. At the regular meetings of the organization at which the fire chief presides and Miss Davis is often present, the captains report the dates of their drills, the time of day they were held, the number of absentees and their reasons, the time required to empty the building, and the order observed by the girls.

"Drills may be called by the captain at any time of the day or night. Frequently there were drills at College Hall when it was crowded with nonresident students, there for classes. In that case no roll was called, but merely the time required and the order reported. The penalty for non-attendance at fire drills is a fine of fifty cents, and a serious error credited to the absentee.

"There are devices such as blocking some of the staircases to train the girls for an emergency. It was being planned, just about the time College Hall burned, to have a fire drill there with artificial smoke, to test the girls. The system is still being constantly changed and improved. On Miss Davis's desk, the night of the fire, was the rough draft of a plan by which property could be better saved in case of fire, without more danger to life."

A few weeks after the burning of College Hall, a small fire broke out at the Zeta Alpha House, but was immediately quenched, and Associate Professor Josephine H. Batchelder, of the class of 1896, writing in College News of the self-control of the students, says:

"Perhaps the best example of 'Wellesley discipline since the fire,' occurred during the brief excitement occasioned by the Zeta Alpha House fire. A few days before this, a special plea had been made for good order and concentrated work in an overcrowded laboratory, where forty-six students, two divisions, were obliged to meet at the same time. On this morning, the professor looked up suddenly at sounds of commotion outside. 'Why, there's a fire-engine going back to the village!' she said. 'Oh, yes' responded a girl near the window. 'We saw it come up some time ago, but you were busy at the blackboard, so we didn't disturb you.' The professor looked over her roomful of students quietly at work. 'Well,' she said, 'I've heard a good deal of boasting about various things the girls were doing. Now I'm going to begin!'"

And this self-control does not fail as the months pass. The temporary administration building, which the students have dubbed the Hencoop, tests the good temper of every member of the college. Like Chaucer's wicker House of Rumors it is riddled with vagrant noises, but as it does not whirl about upon its base, it lacks the sanitary ventilating qualities of its dizzy prototype. On the south it is exposed to the composite, unmuted discords of Music Hall; on the north, the busy motors ply; within, nineteen of the twenty-six academic departments of the college conduct their classes, between walls so thin that every classroom may hear, if it will, the recitations to right of it, recitations to left of it, recitations across the corridor, volley and thunder. Though they all conscientiously try to roar as gently as any sucking dove. The effect upon the unconcentrated mind is something like-The cosine of X plus the ewig weibliche makes the difference between the message of Carlyle and that of Matthew Arnold antedate the Bergsonian theory of the elan vital minus the sine of Y since Barbarians, Philistines and Populace make up the eternal flux wo die citronen bluhn-but fortunately the Wellesley mind does concentrate, and uncomplainingly. The students are working in these murmurous classrooms with a new seriousness and a devotion which disregard all petty inconveniences and obstacles.

And the fire has kindled a flame of friendliness between faculty and students; it has burned away the artificial pedagogic barriers and quickened human relations. The flames were not quenched before the students had begun to plan to help in the crippled courses of study. They put themselves at the disposal of the faculty for all sorts of work; they offered their notes, their own books; they drew maps; they mounted specimens on slides for the Department of Zoology. In that crowded, noisy, one-story building there are not merely the teachers and the taught, but a body of tried friends, moving shoulder to shoulder on pilgrimage to truth.

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