Dr. Sharkey's Pieces

A Time of Crisis Remembered

(March 2002)

It seems a cliché to say that an educational institution is so much more than its buildings -- in today’s terminology, its physical plant. Yet the buildings, the classrooms and administrative offices, the particular beauty of the campus in each season of the year are essential, indeed indispensable, components of the organic whole that is this College. Thus when harm comes to any of those physical aspects we feel it in ways which often are emotionally deeper than can easily be expressed.

So it was on the two occasions, in 1861 and again in 1927, when that building affectionately known as “Old Main” was destroyed by fire. On each occasion the building was reconstructed through the efforts of so many people who recognized the vital importance of Westminster to the educational mission which it had undertaken in 1852.

In that same month in which the fire of 1927 occurred, President Charles Wallace wrote and published a supplement to the Westminster College Bulletin in which he related what had happened and indicated, with evident faith and optimism, the plans for reconstruction which would, as became apparent, replace the building to full function by the spring of 1929.

The spirit of Dr. Wallace’s account deserves reproduction upon this sesquicentennial occasion:

The Burning of “Old Main”

Sometime before daylight on Monday morning, January 24, last, the seemingly fitful ringing of the old college bell brought semi-awakening. But a matter of seconds, and the frantic jangle of the house bell brought full consciousness. A leaping orange light from the campus lit up the breathless figure that faced the door as it opened.

“Doctor, ‘Old Main’ is afire. Can’t you see it burning?”

Personalities are not considered at such a time but later it was found that it had been the ever-faithful “Andy” McDonald who brought the sad news that fire had again laid its destructive hand upon Old Westminster.

Flames were roaring with full force on the first floor of “Old Main,” gaining their start, apparently, from crossed wires near the business office at the south front of the building. The first had been discovered by Thomas Wharry, boiler fireman, who arrived about 5:20 o’clock. McDonald was almost immediately upon the scene, from his home at the south of the campus. Brave hands got to the bell rope in the burning structure while McDonald brought the word that plunged one from the peace of sleep to the bewilderment of disaster.

Then the whole town awoke and swarmed to the blaze. Townspeople, the student body and Faculty gathered with the speechless awe that follows first word of any great calamity.

The first general response was from the New Wilmington Volunteer Fire Department. Students augmented the manpower, quick connections were made, and the earnest men began their heroic fight to quench the flames which were rapidly eating their way into the building.

New Castle and Sharon Send Aid

Help was soon to come from New Castle and Sharon At the first word alert persons called these two cities for assistance. Under the generous authorization of the mayor of New Castle, in thirty-one minutes a fire engine had made the nine-mile run over pavements slick with ice and was playing water into the furnace of flames. A few moments later an engine arrived from Sharon, having been sent by the mayor of that city.

But the fire had gained such terrific headway that all the heroism of these various firemen was in vain to save the building. So furiously did the flames rage and so rapidly did they spread as to prevent any attempt to remove contents of the building save a few chairs from some of the first floor classrooms at the rear. Stern authority was necessary to restrain loyal students who sought permission to form a human chain up the fire escape to rescue priceless volumes from the library.

The fire swept onward and upward, defying the heroic attempt to conquer it. There was nothing that could stop the march of destruction through the historic halls and classrooms. The famous old bell tower seemed to cling with human persistence to its lofty position, but finally swung inward, the bell clanged dully and spire and bell plunged into the midst of the ruin. By ten o’clock the structure was gutted and nothing remained but skeleton walls and the towering chimney.

But all thought had not centered in the fire during these five hours. There was the College itself, more lasting than anything built by hands, to be considered. Before seven-thirty o’clock members of the session of the New Wilmington United Presbyterian Church had held a hurried conference on the campus and Rev. Neale, the pastor, brought word that every facility of the beautiful new church building was placed at the disposal of the College. Soon the other church buildings and the rooms of the New Wilmington Club had been offered.

Chapel Called as “Old Main” Burns

College executives had already set up an improvised office under a tree near the flaming structure. It was here that the offers of room were received and an immediate call issued through the Student Council Committee for an assembly of the student body and Faculty in the church at eight-thirty o’clock “to receive the order of the day.”

Quietly the word was passed and the entire college organization had assembled one hundred percent at the appointed hour in the United Presbyterian Church.

The president shall never escape the inspiration which came upon his entrance to this hastily called chapel service that had gathered so orderly, yet tense with the knowledge that as they met their beloved “Old Main” was roaring to destruction across the street.

As the president approached the platform the assembled students and Faculty, that packed the large auditorium, stood at attention, their sobbing uncontrolled, tears falling unashamed as they waited direction from the desk.

After prayer and a brief address the assembly was turned into a Student forum under the direction of Chairman Walter Wilkison, of the Student Council Committee. The Faculty was called into executive session in another room to decide upon procedure.

The Students adopted a unanimous resolution of “co-operation with the Board of Trustees and the Faculty in whatever plans should be devised for the restoration of ‘Old Main’.”

Faculty Decides to Carry On

Meanwhile the Faculty had unanimously voted down any thought of closing the college and decided that every operation should be carried on. While the fire still raged reorganization was begun on the schedule of semester examination, posted to begin that Monday morning. It was decided to allow but one day of lost time and to start examinations the following morning, making use of the facilities generously offered for class rooms. The program was announced to the student body and the gathering dismissed with instructions to reassemble at eight-thirty o’clock the following morning.

The Faculty adjourned until one-thirty that afternoon when, within an hour, a complete new schedule of examinations was builded, the classes being distributed in the Science Hall, Gymnasium, United Presbyterian Church and New Wilmington Club rooms.

Not so much as an lead pencil had been saved from the supplies of the college. All examination paper was burned but an emergency supply was obtained in New Castle.

At the assembly on Tuesday morning the complete schedule was read and posted, the students distributed to the various places assigned and examinations were under way at nine o’clock. They were completed at four-thirty o’clock on Friday afternoon, in accordance with the closing hour of the original schedule.

While the college family was still under the spell of calamity that fateful Monday morning, Miss Mercer, secretary to the president, and the office assistants, equipped with borrowed pencils and note pads, reported at the office under a tree at nine o’clock. More permanent offices were immediately opened in the Conservatory of Music, the Director generously vacating to the cramped quarters of a single room. The New Wilmington Telephone Company reorganized telephone lines and had ample wire connections for the new headquarters by noon. The First National Bank of New Wilmington and the New Wilmington Globe Printing Company combined in hearty co-operation and by mid-afternoon had supplied a pad of the intricate voucher-checks that the payroll might not be delayed. The single copy of this payroll having burned, it was reconstructed out of the memory of the office force and the writing of checks was begun according to the schedule of regular payday. Through the regularity of the treasurer of the college, in Pittsburgh, faculty checks were also delivered on time.

Classes Resume But Two Days Late

Registration for the new semester was postponed by the Faculty until Tuesday of the following week. A new method was devised whereby the use of the Gymnasium floor, in connection with the college office in the Conservatory of Music, made it possible to complete registration in practically one day. At the conclusion it was discovered that twenty-four new students had entered college, twice as many as have registered at the mid-year of any previous spring semester during the last decade.

The enrollment is now five hundred and seven, an increase of ten percent over the college year just passed.

On Thursday the second semester began, only two days behind schedule. In addition to the quarters generously offered the college other departments are making use of the Science Building, the only remaining structure of the Liberal Arts department on the campus. Laboratories are being used as lecture rooms and all the lecture rooms used full time. The Recital Hall and other large rooms in the Conservatory of Music are being used for class rooms as are also the Sabbath School rooms and basement of the United Presbyterian Church and the rooms of the New Wilmington Club in the bank building. Daily chapel assembly is held at eleven o’clock in the auditorium of the United Presbyterian Church and the Sabbath evening chapel is being held in this same beautiful auditorium on each alternate Sabbath evening.

Rotarians Start New Library

Its valuable library and the contents of the book store totally destroyed, the college confronted the problem of providing students with reference books for the class work that was to start immediately. Scarcely had the matter been suggested before it was solved. The evening of the fire the eighteen members of the New Wilmington Rotary Club underwrote a library fund of two thousand dollars. With this guarantee the absolutely essential books for immediate use were ordered and arrived by the time they were needed. Owners of libraries were not slow to respond to the college need. Within two weeks after the fire a library of three thousand volumes had been collected. The greatest problem now is to find a place for the books, the Science Library having long since been filled to capacity without opportunity for complete organization although the librarians are making a brave effort to bring order out of the chaos.

The shattered outer walls of “Old Main” were in such hazardous condition that a danger zone, roped off by firemen as soon as they arrived on the scene, was maintained and the place guarded night and day. Regard for human life necessitated delay in demolition until nearly a fortnight later when a contract was let with a responsible wrecking firm whose expert explosives men blew down the walls with due care to prevent any further damage to the college safes and the old bell.

This done, the safes were dug from the ruins and the fears of the management set at rest regarding the college records. All were found intact and unharmed by flames. Thus the college retains complete its vital records, including those since the founding of the institution.

Immediate Rebuilding Ordered

The Prudential Committee of the Board of Trustees met in the directors’ room of the Monongahela National Bank in Pittsburgh on Thursday afternoon, January 27, to decide upon procedure. In deference to the particular purpose on the basis of which the Diamond Jubilee Fund was subscribed, it was decided that, first of all, the Diamond Jubilee Fund was not available for the restoration of “Old Main.” The Committee then resolved unanimously that a special appeal be made immediately to all the friends of the college to raise an emergency fund of at least One Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dollars to be added to the $102,276 insurance collected on “Old Main” and to replace the historic college building with a modern well-equipped structure to house the chapel, recitation halls and college office. The president of the College was added to the Robert Audley Browne Hall Building Committee, formed to supervise the construction of the new men’s dormitory, and this committee was made building committee for the reconstruction of the successor of “Old Main,” with instructions to secure an architect to prepare plans and specifications to be submitted to the Prudential Committee for approval. It was also arranged that the dormitory committee should submit plans at the same time in order that a contract might be let for the erection of the two buildings simultaneously.

The building committee as constituted is composed of: Mr. T. A. Gilkey, chairman; State Senator George Weingartner, James A. Chambers, H. T. Getty, R. E. English, Reid Kennedy, and President Wallace.

The Prudential Committee in its deliberation sat in the presence of the traditions of Westminster and reached the decision to replace “Old Main,” out of a desire to restore to the site of the building, “majestic, crowned with everlasting light,” the traditional function of the building, namely, to furnish a place for chapel, a place for recitation, and a place for the college office.

“Old Main’s” History Written in Fire

It has been 66 years since fire first visited the campus of Westminster. “Old Main” is the second college building to be razed by flames. It was “Westminster Collegiate Institute” in 1862 when “Old Main” was built to replace its predecessor, which burned the previous year. Sixty-four classes, including the great-grandchildren of those who first studied beneath the roof of “Old Main,” have passed through its halls, attended chapel and gained broader knowledge in its classrooms.

After the previous fire the college seemed to take on even more rapid expansion. The Board of Trustees, the management and Faculty see in this latest blow the rising Phoenix of an even greater seat of learning. Already the loyalty of the student body and the increased enrollment at an hour when despair seemed stalking through their midst, has given indication of the truth of their prophecy.

During those tragic hours of the fire and the days immediately following, the wonderful character of the Faculty, the student body and the townspeople of New Wilmington, and the citizens of the general community furnished the inspiration which enabled those in charge of the college to carry on, and some day perhaps the real story of the merit of individuals may be given expression.

(Westminster College Bulletin, Volume 20, Number 4, January, 1927.)

Eugene G. Sharkey, professor of history and Peace Studies Program co-coordinator