Old Main Fires - 1900 and 1902


Ames Times, December 13, 1900

Saturday morning at 3:45 the citizens of Ames were aroused by the repeated and long continued whistle of the fire alarm, which ceased only to give the signal of four whistles, showing the fire to be in the fourth ward of the city, which meant at the college.  The whistle was reinforced by the engines of the Northwestern in the yards and also by the ringing of the college chimes.  The aroused citizens got into their clothes as hastily as possible and hacks, the motor line and even Shank’s mare, were brought into requisition to cover the mile and a half from town to college.

The fire was at once located as being in the Main building, the oldest and largest building on the campus, which has been the college landmark for thirty-six years being visible for many miles, especially at night when lights gleamed from its hundreds of windows, shedding their brightness over the surrounding country, like a light house on an ocean ledge.  The fire was first discovered by Paul Morn, the fireman of the building, at 3:30, who was awakened by the smoke and fire and at once gave the alarm by ringing the bell back of the building. The building is in the form of the letter E, the tongue in the center of the letter being the boiler room, one story in height, where the fire originated.  The heating plant was originally in the sub-basement, under the present basement and under the influence of President Welch was finally taken from that place and the boiler room built in its present location, as it was considered a menace to the safety of the building.

The fire at once sprang up the winding stairs in the center of the building and drawing up those and through the roof.  A strong wind fanned the fire toward the north wing, which was speedily past help.  The college volunteer fire department was at work in a very short time and as soon as the citizens from Ames were on the ground valued assistance was rendered by them.  The fire department of Boone was telegraphed for and arrived on a special train about 5:30 and no words of commendation can be too high for the services rendered by them.  Streams of water played on the fire constantly from four o’clock till seven after which the volunteers still kept the streams playing on the ruins.  The students thus hastily summoned from their beds got themselves together, some only escaping in scanty clothing, but fortunately no one was injured except a few slight burns, and those rooming in the central part and south wing saved most of their belongings, but the shivering, half clad, water soaked boys standing in the chill December morning, many of them with all they possessed in the world on their backs, was a sight to call for sympathy.

The largest loss was in the department of history, Prof. Noble losing the greater part of his private library, and in the department of botany.  The fire destroyed a large amount of valuable botanical material.  The Parry herbarium was burned, except the duplicates, which were nearly all burned.  A part of the grass collection was saved, and a few of the other specimens.  The general collection contained about 80,000 specimens, more than 50,000 of these were burned besides a large number of duplicate specimens numbering many thousands.  Many valuable western plants collected by Prof. Pammel were destroyed.  Also sets of plants from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado and Texas were burned and much of the private library was also ruined as well as the department library.  Most of the  microscopes and other apparatus were burned.  Manuscript on the grasses of the state besides one on thistles and some smaller papers ready for publication were also destroyed.

From the “Bomb” of 1897 we glean the following facts in regard to the “Main,” as it was familiarly called by students and faculty alike.  An appropriation was made in 1864 of $20,000 for a college building, and the foundation begun the same summer.  An additional appropriation of [$21,000] was made in 1866 for completion of the same, and after many difficulties and the discharge of the first architect and the throwing up of the first contract and awarding the contract to another man, Mr. Jacob Reichard, for $74,000, the college to furnish the brick, the building was finally completed in the fall of 1868.  The wings were added in 1870 and with the additions and repairs added to the original cost, the building up to 1896 had cost $228,400.  No extensive changes or repairs have been made since then.  It consisted of four stories, basement and sub-basement, was 158 feet long by 112 feet through the wings, a court in the center on the west, in which was located the boiler room, attached to the main building on the west side.

Trustees Hungerford, Dixon and Boardman were all here by noon and in conference with the faculty, Dr. Beardshear had been at Danville, Friday night to deliver a lecture and did not learn of the fire until he reached Des Moines Saturday noon.  However, he reached home Saturday evening at six o’clock and since that time has not spared himself in looking after the many emergencies rendered necessary by the loss of the Main.  A roll call held in chapel Saturday a. m. resulted in all the students being accounted for and a mass meeting held by them on the campus that afternoon was enthusiastic for the continuation of the term’s work until the close and the college yell was given with undiminished vigor.  Many comical and unusual costumes and occurrences came to the surface, but everything was taken in good spirit and the disposition to make the best of everything.  The board was called in meeting Tuesday, in conference with the president to arrive at some conclusion in regard to the immediate future.  Many workmen were set to work Saturday clearing the debris from the steam pipes in order to repair the heating plant and make the connection to Morrill hall in order to heat it for the commencement exercises.

Noah Harding, the veteran fire chief of Boone, was first to respond to the call when given them and first to scale the ladder at the fire.  The fire company made the run from Boone to Ames, fourteen miles, in twelve minutes, and the blood of the old fire chief was up like the spirit of a war horse in battle, when he smells the smoke.  He is a fire fiend when in action and no danger can stop him notwithstanding the fact that he is seventy-five years old.  He spoke strong words of praise for the college and Ames volunteers.

The question confronted the college management of supplying the immediate needs of some of the students who lost everything in the fire.  This has been met in a characteristic manner which carried out the honor system of the institution.  The needs of the students are to be provided for without making them feel like objects of charity by simply loaning them the money, the same to be returned without interest and at their own convenience, and kept to create a fund to be reserved for similar emergencies.  The trustees at their special meeting Tuesday, received a proposition from Mr. Embree and C. R. Quade, of Ames to erect a large rooming house and restaurant in connection, the former to be built by Mr. Embree and the latter conducted by Mr. Quade.  This was laid before the board and will be considered by them at the regular board meeting next Wednesday.  It is not considered probable that the dormitory system will be continued except temporarily to tide over the present emergency.

A student committee waited on the board Tuesday afternoon and presented a petition for the continuance of the dormitory system.  The board appointed as a committee to confer with the executive council of the state, who have control of the providential fund, amounting to $50,000, trustees Hungerford, Robison and McElroy.  The committee to ask $20,000 as a repair fund for refitting the south wing of the burned building for class and some dormitory rooms for temporary use.  The trustees strongly favor the development of the club system for boarding.  Mr. Dixon, chairman of the building committee was appointed to confer with state architect Leibe, to inspect the south wing and see if it be safe to repair it.  Also to confer with Mr. Schleuter, contractor of the Engineering building, to see if possible to complete that building by September next instead of the following June.

The matter of a building to take the place of the burned structure is all in the air at present.  It is hoped to obtain by legislative action an appropriation sufficient to build a large collegiate building for offices and class rooms but that is still too far in the future to make any definite guess upon it.


Ames Intelligencer, December 13, 1900

Saturday morning the north wing and a considerable part of the middle section of the Main college building was burned to the ground.  The action of the board of trustees at their meeting this week makes it certain that the building will not be rebuilt.  The work of the school has been continued under difficulties of course but with a spirit of co-operation on the part of faculty, students and citizens that insures the successful completion of the term’s work.  Rooms were offered for the accommodation of the burned out students around the campus and down town far in excess of requirements.

Accounts of the fire have been spread broadcast of the country with a considerable variation of details, one of the best of these appeared in the Des Moines Leader and from it and statements that have been sent out by the college authorities liberal quotations have been made in writing of the fire.  The fire which destroyed the building started in the boiler room.  The engineer sleeps in the room in a corner farthest from the boilers.  At about 3:45 o’clock in the morning he was awakened by smoke and found that a heap of kindling wood was on fire.  This was between the boiler and the main building and near where the pipes lead to the hall and stairways.  It was evident the fire had been burning probably ten minutes, and had already communicated to the interior walls.  It had certainly burned through the door leading to the dormitory.  Nobody knows how the fire could have started.  The fires under the boilers had been banked as usual.  Everything was just as it has always been, so far as anybody knows.

The alarm was sounded at a quarter to 4 o’clock by the ringing of the college bell immediately in the rear of the college.  Within ten minutes the college fire department was at work.  There are two well organized college hose companies composed of students and they are under direction of Prof. Beyer, as fire chief.  There is an abundance of hose and the water supply is good.  There are standpipes in the building and hose on every floor, besides hydrants at convenient points on the campus.  The water tank contained 162,000 gallons of water.  The pumps were kept going and the water supply was good to the end.  But the construction of the building was such that the fire went right to the roof through the halls and between walls.  There was a slight southwest wind and this drove the flames into the north wing.  It was a short time before the firemen had five streams playing on the fire, but nothing could save the building.  It was like a box of wood with veneer and filled with hidden passages.  The flames broke out above and below and all around.  At 4:32 o’clock in the morning as the Northwestern fast train for the west went by the fire was at its fiercest and the trainmen say it was a magnificent spectacle.  It looked then as if the entire building would go and also Morrill hall, a little way to the north.  The students were working hard and the fire department from Ames was on the ground.  But the firemen at Boone were requested to send help and they covered the fourteen miles in about as many minutes.  They arrived on the scene just before six o’clock and gave valuable assistance, saving the south wing and the dormitory.  By seven o’clock the fire was practically out.

The scenes in the dormitory and about the campus in the gray dawn were dramatic and exciting.  The college bell gave the alarm, but this was not sufficient to arouse all the students and the big bell of the chimes was rung.  The boys of the fire department left their rooms promptly to go to work, but there were at least 250 students and fifteen instructors asleep in the building and as soon as they realized their danger they commenced a rush to save their belongings.  At first the smoke was dense in the halls, but soon cleared out. There was little danger of loss of life because of the four stairways and the fire escapes.  But they commenced pitching trunks and boxes and valises and furniture out of the windows.  A few believed the fire alarm was false and went back to bed and these had barely time to get out.  The whole building was charred long before the fire had reached its worst.

That part of the building which actually burned was probably worth $50,000, but the college has put at least $200,000 into the entire building.  It was dedicated in 1868 and was the first college building.  The two wings were built in 1872 at a cost of $50,000.  There was a basement, sub-basement and four stories.  While only the north half of the building burned it is morally certain the rest will have to be torn down.  Gen. Lincoln says that the foundation and walls of the building are in bad condition and have outlived their usefulness.  The whole building was water soaked.  There were six or seven recitation rooms in the building.  A few of these can be used for a while if they can be heated.  The boiler room was destroyed, but the boilers seem to be all right.  The class rooms had been recently refurnished.  The building was of brick, but old-fashioned in construction and appearance.

The heaviest loss aside from the building was in the duplicates of the botanical collection.  Pammel makes the following statement concerning the Parry herbarium which was saved, except the duplicates which were nearly all burned.  A part of the grass collection was saved and a few of the other specimens.  The general collection contained about 80,000 specimens; more than 50,000 of these were burned besides a large number of duplicate specimens numbering many thousands.  Many valuable western plants, representing four years of labor were destroyed.  Also sets of plants from Puerto Rico, Cuba and Mexico and much of the private library was also ruined.  Most of the microscopes and other apparatus were burned.  Manuscript on grasses of the state besides one on thistles and some smaller papers ready for publication were also destroyed.

The loss to students was considerable.  About thirty of them lost practically everything.  The firemen did not take time to clear their rooms.  Some of the students were in Chicago, where they went to attend the stock show.  One who did not respond to the first alarm lost everything but one pair of trousers.  All day the students were busy gathering up the fragments from the campus.  Books, papers and letters were scattered promiscuously about.  Some of the girls were looking very hard for letters they said contained nothing at all.

Many students lost books and a committee was organized at once to get a list of the books needed and they were ordered from Chicago by telegraph.  The girls held a meeting in Margaret hall and in fifteen minutes raised a purse of $100 to assist the boys in buying books to replace those that were burned.  The faculty also contributed.


Ames Times, August 14, 1902

What remained of the old main building at the Iowa State College burned this morning.  The blaze was discovered about 3:30 by night watchman Jones.  When first seen it was creeping up the wooden elevator shaft at the rear of the south wing.  The alarm was immediately telephoned to the electric light plant down town and as soon as possible after the whistle awakened the citizens the hose cart and a large number of people were on the ground.  The blaze spread rapidly and in an hour after the alarm was given nearly the whole building was afire.  Everything of any value was removed, even to the gas fittings in Prof. Pammel’s laboratory in the basement.  The Parry botanical collection in Prof. Pammel’s office, the most valuable one in the state, was one of the first things removed.  The water tank had been drained yesterday to allow the workmen to paint it and no water could be obtained until the pump was started.  By this time the fire had made such headway that it was impossible to stop it and all the efforts of the fire fighters were trained on the heating plant at the rear of the building.

It is a coincidence that the fire in the north wing was discovered at the same time in the morning almost to the minute.  The north wing was burned on the morning of Dec. 10, 2900, while college was in session and the building full of students.  This being vacation time the building was practically empty with the exception of furniture, laboratory and office equipment.  Eight or ten students who were staying over until next term were rooming in the building but got out safely with all their effects.

As the building was to be torn down to make room for the new central building which will soon be built, it is not as much of a loss as it would at first appear.  In 1854 an appropriation was made of $20,000 for this building and the foundation begun the same summer.  An additional appropriation was made in 1866 of $91,000 for its completion and after many difficulties, the throwing up of the contract, and the discharge of the first architect, it was completed in the fall of 1868.  The wings were added in 1872 and with the additions and repairs added to the original cost the building up to 1896 had cost $228,400.  No extensive changes or repairs have been made since then.  It consisted before the previous fire of four stories, basement and sub-basement, was 158 feet long by 112 feet through the wings, a court in the center on the west in which was located the boiler-room attached to the main building.

The new main will rise from the ashes of the old, but whether on the same site or not is problematical.  Sentiment decrees in favor of the site of the old main about which clings so much of the history of the college from its first inception, while from an architectural standpoint a site farther south and perhaps west would have an advantage as a great main building on the old site would destroy the ensemble and unity of what is desireable in effecting a quadrangle by obscuring the engineering hall façade and view.

Tentative plans have been drawn and approved for the new main and a committee consisting of Architect Proudfoot, of Des Moines, Trustee Dixon, of the building committee, and Prof. C. F. Curtiss left Thursday night on a tour of inspection of collegiate buildings at Chicago University, Champaign, Ill., Madison, Wis., and perhaps other places where new college buildings have recently been erected, to investigate before perfecting plans.  The new building will cost $300,000, and will be a model of its kind.

At a short meeting of the board of trustees last Thursday it was decided to tender Mrs. Beardshear ground on the campus to erect a residence for herself and family on the same terms granted to members of the faculty.  [The death of President Beardshear was first reported on this same day.] This tender has not as yet been formally made but will be made regular by the board at their coming meeting.  It is understood that Mrs. Beardshear will accept the offer.  We are glad to learn that she will remain as a resident of Ames and that she has decided that the place which has been her home for eleven years and where her honored husband is laid to rest will continue to be her home in future years and that her children will gain their education in the school which owes so much to their father for its strength and commanding position both in the state and nation.