Wheeling High School Burns: January 3, 1914
“But on this cold and dreary morn,
In Engine Company 4,
There is a vacant bed upstairs,
For One, who is no more…”
-To The Wheeling Fire Dept. by Anonymous
One hundred two years ago today, just after 6 o’clock PM on Saturday evening, January 3, 1914, a janitor discovered a fire in the basement of Wheeling High School beneath the stairway. The janitor attempted to douse it with buckets of water, to no avail. The stairways and air ducts acted as flues, allowing the fire to rapidly ascend, spreading across the upper floors and all the way to the roof.
“Undermanned and Under Equipped”
The janitor ran a block to 21st Street to alert Hook and Ladder Company No. 6, and they were on the scene quickly. But heavy snows had damaged the wires of the city-wide alarm system, causing a delayed reaction from other firefighting companies. In fact, telephone calls had to be placed to sound the alarm. The entire building was soon aflame. The building, Fire Chief Rose later declared, “was constructed on the lines of an ideal fire trap.”
“I never saw a building that had so many air courses in it,” Rose told the Intelligencer. “Once a flame got started, it would ‘walk’ around faster than a person. The roof was one continuous chain of braces and rafters which made the whole thing like kindling wood ready to be touched off…The building was built in utter disregard of all fire protection.”
With the eye–opening House and Herrman department store fire that would inspire the technical “modernization” of firefighting in Wheeling still three years in the future, the fire department of 1914 Wheeling was still very much committed to horse drawn fire wagons and steam powered pumps. But the Wheeling High School fire was eye–opening in a different way — demonstrating that the Wheeling Fire Department was woefully “undermanned and under equipped.”
According to A History of Fire Fighting in Wheeling (1925): “There were but 50 firemen employed at that time. With two men required for each engine and at least three men for every hose line, the department was altogether unable to cope with a fire of such size…”
When the other city companies finally arrived, the men fought valiantly, throwing all they had at the inferno. Again according to A History of Fire Fighting in Wheeling (1925), “five steam engines pumped two streams each into the building and plug attachments added more water but all had little effect.”
Indeed, as the Intelligencer reported: “The firemen worked valiantly, but were working with odds against them in the building so long that the equipment would not reach to the necessary places.”
“If two fires would break out in the city,” Chief Rose told the Intelligencer, “we would be powerless with conditions as they exist now, with crossed wires, etc…”
After a few hours, the roof collapsed and the north wall fell, crushing to death two volunteers, Charles Talbourt of Wheeling and J.E. Buchanan of Parkersburg, and injuring several firemen, including Engine Co. No. 4 (8th Ward) Captain Charles J. Ferguson, who later died from his injuries.
By late in the evening, several thousand people, including many of the high school’s students, had gathered to watch the building burn. “[The latter] watched the demon fire gut the building,” the Intelligencer reported, “not with pleasure as the boy or girl of tender years, but with sorrow, expressed in every motion.”
An investigation spearheaded by the Board of Education later concluded that the fire had been caused by “spontaneous combustion of rags and shavings in a closet in the basement.” [Wheeling News-Register Dec, 12, 1958 report by Jay Niebur] Losses were estimated at approximately $100, 000 (23. 3 million in 2016 dollars), and were partially covered by insurance. The Board of Education paid to replace books and other items lost by the students in the fire, and classes were moved to Webster School while the Wheeling High School building was repaired and rebuilt.
“No Wind that Blew Dismayed the Crew, Or Troubled the Captain’s Mind
Embarking from the port of Sophomoric Turmoil, the Ship of ’15, Skipper Marsh at the helm, sailed smoothly across the sea of Juniority. The mid-voyage destruction of our high school home did not destroy our class spirit, for its oxy-acetylenic flame gleamed forth from even that patriarch of educational architecture, Webster School…”
–Wheeling High School Record, 1915
Designed by Wheeling Hall of Fame architect Frederick Faris, the new Wheeling High School was dedicated in 1909 and opened its doors to the public May 29th, 1911.
From the school magazine, The Wheeling High School Record, Commencement issue, 1911 :
“The new Wheeling High School is situated on Chapline street between Twentieth and Twenty-first streets. It is an imposing three-story structure of light brick. The building is patterned after the ancient classical architecture, the Grecian style predominating. The projecting top, but little adorned, resembles somewhat the old Athenian style and gives the structure a substantial and pleasing affect. The striking part of the edifice is its Grecian colonnade. This is set off by six massive Ionic pillars, with their beautiful scroll tops and plain, well-defined base. These rise to the full height of the building and give it a grand and impressive appearance. The flat surface of the front has but little adornment; save, some artistic arrangements of the bricks themselves, which serve as beautiful ornamentations and break the monotony of a plain, unrelieved wall. Seven large stone steps lead from the pavement to the floor of the colonnade, while the whole structure rests on a substantial stone foundation. The total number of windows in the front is fifty-six. These are grouped together in an artistic manner. Their frames are painted a rich, dark red, giving a beautiful touch of color and adding much to the general appearance of the building. The six large windows opening upon the colonnade from the first floor are the same width and have the same appearance as the front entrance. The entrance consists of two massive glass doors framed in a beautiful red wood; and comply with the law which compels all school doors to open outward.
“On entering through these doors one’s gaze may rest upon the beautiful wide escailier. Its steps are slate and are finished by a light oak railing. Fourteen steps lead to a landing about six feet by eight; here the stairs branch off and two semi-winding ones, of fourteen steps each, extend to the hall above.
“Taking a general survey of the outer appearance of our new Wheeling High, we agree that it is exquisitely proportioned, handsome and imposing. We, the pupils of Wheeling High School, are a might proud of it.”
Following the January 1914 fire, the rebuilt Wheeling High School was reopened in September 1915, and continued to serve the city’s public high school students until 1976, when the new Wheeling Park High School opened. The building was razed in 1984.
All that remains today of the Wheeling High School building is one of the original pillars, preserved in commemoration by the alumni association. Ninety-one year old Matilda Scharf, a member of the 1912 graduating class, cut the ribbon when the pillar was dedicated in 1985.
Though all that is left of the physical building today is this lone pillar, the legacy of Wheeling High School is much more than a pillar: it is the thousands Wildcat graduates who were educated within her halls and went on to make the world a better place.
Callin’s Wheeling City Directory, 1914.
Plummer, R. and Hanlan, W. C., A History of Firefighting in Wheeling, Wheeling: E.B. Roberts, 1925.
Wheeling Fire Department Yearbook, 1944.
Wheeling High School Record, 1911, 1914 and 1915.
The Wheeling Intelligencer, January 4-7, 1914.
The Wheeling News-Register, January 4-7, 1914, 1978, 1984, 1985.