Slippery Rock, PA Slippery Rock State Teachers' College North Hall Fire, Oct 1937

North Hall before the fire North Hall after the fire North Hall 1920s

Fire at North Hall, State Teachers' College at Slippery Rock, 16 Oct 1937

It might have been 5:20 or it might have been 5:22 on the morning of October 16, 1937, when the sleeping residents of North Hall were aroused from their dreams of Homecoming Day by the terrific clamor of the fire alarm system. Some of the girls and their guests were grumblingly slow in getting from their beds so early but when a hysterical voice screamed, “Fire! Fire!”, and sniffing noses verified the terrifying cry, action was immediate and rapid. Covers were thrown back, slippers and robes hastily donned, and windows slammed shut by the fleeing inmates. Efficient fire captains and lieutenants checked at every fire escape and examined every dormitory room before reporting to the fire chief that everyone was safely out.

South Hall denizens and townspeople were aroused by the shrieking of the powerhouse whistle which blasted incessantly in a sharp, shrill key for long minutes. Then the spectators gathered around the black kitchen door. Orange flames were licking at the kitchen windows and roaring along the walls above the stove. Intrepid firefighters rushed up the iron stairs of the wooden middle wing to run the dormitory hoses through the bedroom windows and spray a feeble stream on the rapidly gaining blaze. The dancing light of the fire threw into high relief the faces of the onlooking students. Fear, worry, horror, interest, rapt attention—all were depicted in twisted lines. Girls huddled in little groups and whispered excitedly among themselves. “Gee! No physiology test today for me. Can’t take a test on an empty stomach and it doesn’t look much like breakfast today, does it?”

“I wonder how it started? It must have been an overheated stove.”

“Boy! That fire might be hot but this morning air is cold!”

“Yes, we thought it was another one of those blamed fire drills but I guess we thought wrong. Some excitement!”

Volunteer firemen used all the available extinguishers and then the town-pumper pulled up to the scene. The fames died down. It seemed to be almost under control. Then, suddenly, a tiny dancing reflection was seen in tie corner room on the second floor. A gasp from the assembled watchers and then a mutter, “It’s up to the second floor!”

Billowing clouds of black smoke rolled across the campus and down over Main Street. The red rim of the early sun was dispersing the frost from the ground when a horrified groan from the crowd plus a hasty inspection of the brick kitchen wing showed lire under the eaves. The roof over the dining room was oozing smoke from under its shingles when the south tower burst into a flaming pinnacle.

Someone from the brick north wing, farthest from the source of the conflagration, realized that the building was doomed. She ran around to the deserted side of her wing and up the grill fire escape into her second floor room. Clothes began to rain from the window and passersby, quickly sensing the significance of the action, rallied around to help. Soon the north side of the building was full of active boys, razing rooms of movable possessions.

While they worked, the fire continued to roar toward them. Across the roof, through the dining room, then the front porch -the workers inside were choking and fumbling in the smoky, darkened corridors.

Then all inside were hustled out by the firemen in charge. The roof was ablaze over the last wing. The hot flames licked high into the air over the tower of the president’s residence. The intense heat penetrated the slate roof of Old Main and a thin spiral of smoke curled up from the shingles. The firemen managed to quell the threat after a heroic effort, by pulling a hose up the side of the building and chopping a hole in the timbers.

The consuming flames finished the north wing and shriveled the grass bank to black cinders. It crept through the wooden wing until it reached the storage room addition which was fire proof. There its ravages were stopped.

The campus by the garden along the road was littered with clothing, piled high in ragged heaps, and frantic fingers rummaged through them in an effort to find some personal belongings. Somber faces, just a few tear-streaked, reflected the enormity of the catastrophe. Burned out! Nothing left but what they wore out of the building! Never-to-be-replaced possessions gone up in smoke like so much paper!

Saxigena 1938, yearbook of the State Teachers’ College at Slippery Rock, PA