Cincinnati, OH College Building Fire, Oct 1869


Another celebrated fire took place October 20, 1869, at which time the College Building on Walnut street between Fourth and fifth was once more the victim of the flames. The fire began a few minutes after one o'clock in the afternoon at a time when the streets were thronged with people and thousands of spectators witnessed the scene. The first sign of the fire was some smoke pouring from the roof a little north of the cupola. The ladders of the hook and ladder company were found to be too short and the account of the efforts of the firemen to use them is quite thrilling: "It was about two o'clock when the long ladder was raised at a point south of the main entrance of the Library and Exchange rooms. It just touched the cornice. Up this perilous ascent the firemen mounted with a heavy hose. In front was John Bray of Company No.17 and he was followed by John Moorwood of the same company. When Bray had reached the top of the ladder and Moorwood the middle, it slipped and was about to fall. The gazing crowd was seized with horror and every spectator held his breath in fearful suspense. Coolly as if it was a matter of little importance. Bray reached for the cornice, swung himself up and reached down and caught the falling ladder, thereby saving his own and his comrade's life. The feelings of the multitude below expressed themselves in a deafening cheer as the smoke hid them in from view." For a time an effort was made to save the books of the library, but after many had been taken out this attempt was given up. Within the building a terrible tragedy was taking place entirely unobserved by the spectators. Capt. Matthew Schwab of the hook and ladder company had groped his way with a party carrying a hose up the double stairway. He had lifted the hatch of the roof when flames stuck the firemen in the face and made them retreat. All were thought to have been dragged out of the smoke by their comrades although six or seven were badly burned and some disfigured for life. Several persons stated that they had seen Schwab carried downstairs and away, although his hat and lantern were found in the building. At about three o'clock the north half of the roof of the Merchants' Exchange room fell in and a half hour later the fire was under control. In the evening it was learned that Captain Schwab could not be found. Finally, the chief, Megrue, and his assistant, Lewis Wisbey, headed a party of firemen and searched the building. Schwab with his forehead and hands terribly burned, and his chest badly scalded was found at the extreme southern end of the corridor in the fourth story. He was near a window in a crouching position with his face in his hands. He evidently had been blinded by the flash of flames and had started on hand and the suffocating smoke on the other. His death at the age of 28 created a profound impression on the city and his funeral was largely attended by the different organizations of the and citizens. He had served four years in the Civil War in the Fifth Ohio Regiment and had risen from the ranks to the captaincy. Although the College Building had been reduced to a complete wreck, the damage to the library was not serious as no books of value were lost or ruined.

Centennial History of Cincinnati and Representative Citizens by Charles Theodore Greve, 1904, pages 853-854