West Chester, PA Swarthmore College Fire, Sep 1881

West Chester PA Swarthmore College Fire.jpg



Westchester, Penn., Sept. 26. -- The fire last night at Swarthmore College, an institution in charge of the Society of Friends, 10 miles from Philadelphia, almost totally destroyed the building.
In the rear wing the laundry, steam engine, heating apparatus, &c., are uninjured. With this exception, the whole interior of the building is burned, and only the bare walls are now standing. The fire broke out at 11 o'clock. All the inmates, including 208 students, 8 teachers, and many servants, had retired. The watchman on duty heard at that hour a noise as of an explosion. Looking for its source on the several floors, he found everything all right until he had ascended to a loft under the roof of the rear centre building, where fire was found. The alarm was given, THOMAS FOULKE, Superintendent of the property, came at once, and the male students and servants instantly organized a fire brigade, laying lines of hose through the corridors on all the floors. These were amply supplied from large tanks in the upper stories, fed by a steam pump, which had been promptly set in motion. The fire was confined to a limited space for some minutes, but its situation -- close under the roof and quite as high as the level of the water tank -- prevented a good stream being put on it. In half an hour it had spread beyond control, and at this juncture a change of wind carried it into the mansard roof of the main building, from which it rushed with amazing suddenness and fury into the mansard air spaces of the wings. The main building was separated below the roof from the wings by iron doors, and these perfectly served to confine the flames, except for the roof communication, which proved fatal. In two hours the building was entirely burned. Fortunately, perfect order was maintained, and every one in the building got out safely. The students generally had ample time to remove their clothing which they had in their rooms, and their losses are confined to articles stored. When the roll was called on the Campus all were present or accounted for.
The college library, about 4,000 volumes, containing many costly books, was entirely lost, but a very valuable collection of old books, manuscripts, relics, &c., relating to the early history of Friends was in a fire proof room, and is safe. The scientific collections, which included an excellent cabinet of minerals, one of the best in Pennsylvania, and a great number of specimens in natural history, were all burned. PROF. LEIDY, who was Curator of these, valued them at over $6,000. One of the Faculty, PROF. CUNNINGHAM, lost a valuable private collection of about 1,000 works on mathematics, many of them rare and costly. The libraries of the three college literary societies were saved. Much furniture, including large quantities of bedding and blankets, was also got out. The building itself, of stone, was erected between 1866 and 1869, the college being opened in the latter year. It cost, prices being than high, about $300,000, and with its contents the total loss may reach $400,000. There is a large but by no means adequate insurance, the amount of which cannot be ascertained today, the policies being in the Treasurer's safe in Philadelphia. It probably does not exceed $150,000. The President's house, meeting house, and several Professors residences being detached and at some distance, were not burned. The origin of the fire remains uncertain. One theory is that there was a leak of gas in the loft, and that this, becoming lighted in some way, caused an explosion. It is explicitly denied that the fire began in the laboratory by spontaneous combustion or otherwise. THere will be only a brief vacation in the studies of the college. The Board of Managers met this morning and took steps to secure accommodations in one of several large Summer hotels in places near at hand. In two weeks, it is believed, studies can be resumed. Meanwhile, most of the students have gone to their homes. The college will be rebuilt at once and liberal offers of funds were made today to the authorities.

The New York Times New York 1881-09-27