Collinwood School Fire

Description

On 4 March 1908, a tragedy occurred that prompted changes in school safety across the United States. About nine o'clock in the morning on March 4, 1908, nine-year-old Niles Thompson jumped out of a window at Lakeview Elementary to escape a fire that had started in the basement of his school. Nearly two hundred children who had also been lucky enough to escape watched as flames engulfed the Collinwood school. Niles frantically ran among his schoolmates, searching for his little brother, Thomas. Once Niles realized his brother was not one of the safe children, he ran back into the school to save Thomas. Neither of the two Thompson boys walked out of their school again.

Niles and Thomas Thompson were among the 172 children and two teachers who were trapped inside the school and died in the fire. Nineteen of these children could not be identified. That weekend, the entire Collinwood community mourned for those lost. According to Cleveland's Plain Dealer, "The village seemed to be one vast procession of hearses and carriages. . . . Scarcely did one funeral carriage pass before another came into sight wending its way with its sorrowful burden to the burying grounds. . . . Those who had no dead to mourn stood on the streets watching the grim procession as they passed. There was scarcely a dry eye in Collinwood." The following Monday, memorial and funeral services were held at Lake View Cemetery for all the victims of the Collinwood school fire. Businesses in the Collinwood neighborhood were closed for the day out of respect for the dead and their families. Lakeview Elementary children that survived served as pallbearers and other Cleveland school children made memorials in the shape of flowers.

A number of building deficiencies contributed to the fire's start and to so many children getting trapped inside the blazing building. According to the State Deputy Fire Marshal, who investigated the burnt building, the fire began when an overheated furnace ignited exposed dry wood in the boiler room. Obstruction of a clear pathway to the exits, narrow stairs, and the school's highly flammable structure were blamed for the fire and consequent deaths of so many children. This "awakened the state to action for better protection against fire in schools and public buildings." Following the Lakeview school fire, many changes were made in school building in Cleveland and throughout the country. For the former, these changes included iron stair cases, concrete floors, fireproof coverings for pipes, the placement of doors directly in front of stair cases, and unobstructed doorways. Everywhere in the United States, laws were passed that required enclosed stairwells and special door latches.

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Lakeview Elementary School

Lakeview Elementary School stood on E. 152nd Street in Collinwood. Before it burned down 366 children attended the school. Less than 200 survived the fire.

Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Firemen Delayed

On the morning of the fire that destroyed Lakeview Elementary, firemen were delayed in getting to the school. The horses that were needed to pull the gasoline fire engine had to be gathered from the fields. When the firemen got to the scene, they realized their ladders were not long enough to reach the second story, and their hoses were leaky, making it difficult to extinguish the flames that traveled from the basement to the top of the school. Finally, they had forgotten their ax and could not break down the back entrance where many of the children were found to have burned to death.

Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

After the Fire

Once the flames were extinguished, children were pulled from the gutted school building. Parents had to scan the line of tiny corpses to find their missing children.

Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

The Fatal Door

At first it was thought that the students could not get out of the school because the doors opened from the inside. Although this was not the case, the two back doors were narrowed, and only one could open, allowing only a little over two feet for escape. The vestibule that led to the back door had been made into a cloak room, with hooks protruding from the walls on which coats were hung. Finally, there were partitions built in front of the doors, blocking a direct path to the outside.

Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

White Caskets of the Unidentified

The unidentified children were buried in a mass grave at Lake View Cemetery. Each of the unidentified were buried separately with a marker bearing a number. The number corresponds to some description of what was found on the bodies, such as a ring or piece of cloth, and is recorded in a registry. On 22 October 1910, the memorial for the unknown dead of the Collinwood fire was dedicated at the cemetery. On the opposite side of the memorial's shaft is a bronze tablet that has all of the names of the teachers and children who died.

Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Memorial School

Despite the grief surrounding this tragedy, it was acknowledged that another school had to be built to teach the current and future Collinwood children. Parents were against the rebuilding of the Lakeview school on the old site, but eventually compromised with the planners of the new Memorial Elementary School. It was decided that it would be built on the same site, but not the same foundation. The school still stands today.

Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Memorial Garden

Two years after the fire, a memorial park, featuring gardens, fountains and gravel walkways was built on the site of the old Collinwood School, right next to Memorial Elementary. Beautiful flowers still bloom in the gardens today.

Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Cite this Page

Heidi Fearing, “Collinwood School Fire,” Cleveland Historical, accessed September 19, 2014, http:/​/​clevelandhistorical.​org/​items/​show/​394.​
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