A New Animated Short Examines What Happened in The 1908 Collinwood School Fire

Jan 9, 2017

A deadly fire in a Northeast Ohio school more than a hundred years ago is the subject of a new short film, which chronicles what happened -- as well as how rapid industrialization contributed to the deaths of 172 schoolchildren.

In 1908, Collinwood was home to a growing immigrant population, attracted to jobs in the railroad yards and in heavy industry. Back then, the village was part of Euclid, and hundreds of its kids attended Lakeview School.

“They doubled the size of the building, because the town was growing so fast [and] there were so many immigrants coming to the town. But they added no new exits to the building," explains Michael Newbury, a professor of American history and literature at Middlebury College in Vermont, who has created an animated short to recount what happened.

“The building had two exits and a population on a daily basis of roughly 400 people in it.”

Newbury has studied numerous historical disasters. For the past four years, he’s researched what happened at the Lakeview School in Collinwood on March 4, 1908.

Fire-starter
“How the fire started is unknown and, I think, not even that important a question. Initially people wanted to blame the janitor in the building for over-firing the furnace or somehow being irresponsible. That’s probably partly because he was the only man -- and an immigrant man -- in a building full of women and children for whom he, in theory, had some kind of responsibility.

"The coroner’s inquest found that he was not responsible in any way for the fire. But really none of that matters: What really matters is that the building was built in such a way that any kind of fire that broke out on the lower floors of the building was going to spread rapidly through the building.”

Newbury calls it essentially a giant fireplace, with a brick exterior and wooden interior.  The fire broke out in the basement, climbed the stairs and then blocked one of the two exits, leaving children with no place to go.

“A large percentage of the students in the Collinwood school were Eastern and Southern European immigrant children who spoke Italian or Slovenian at home. And none of the teachers were that: they were all primarily English speakers.”

Immigration and poor building design are recurring themes in the Collinwood fire, and Newbury has devoted an entire website and animated short film to what happened.

Silent movie
“We avoided speech in the movie because we wanted to suggest silent movies with their dramatic physical gestures. But we also wanted to cram the audio with the clanging, banging, roaring sounds of early industrialization and early industrial cities. You’ll find the sounds of train wheels on tracks, architecture groaning, steel grinding and fire roaring, glass shattering.”

The film uses realistic-looking characters to show what happened as parents, reporters and firefighters rushed to the scene. Aside from a snippet of film footage and photographs and newspaper accounts from the 1908 disaster, there’s not much archival material.  

Newbury continues to add to his website, collinwoodfire.org.

“I’ll get these notes that have family photos in them, or report cards from students who were attending the school at the time. And all of this stuff is stuff that’s impossible to find.”

Who will advocate?
Newbury has found more material to work with when it comes to other disasters, such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City, which led to major workplace reforms.  He says the Collinwood fire didn’t lead to similar reforms in school buildings.

“Labor unions were growing significantly both in their numbers and their power to lobby political organizations. And they worked hard at this after Triangle.

"But children didn’t have the same organized advocacy that labor had, right? Who’s going to lobby for schoolchildren in precisely the way and precisely the sort of organized fashion that labor unions organized for labor and made it visible?”

Collinwood built a more fire-proof school on the site two years after the fire, the same year the city was annexed by Cleveland. The proposed annexation suggests another reason the city couldn't fight the fire in 1908 adequately: the fire department was underfunded, according to Bill Barrow from Cleveland State University’s historical archives.

"They took a while to try and get the horse teams going, connected to the pumper, which was pretty rattletrap. By the time it got there, it didn’t really have much power anyway and couldn’t do much to save the whole thing. There was some talk that maybe they could’ve invested more in the fire department if they weren’t looking to be annexed by Cleveland. Cleveland was thought to have a much superior fire department.”

Barrow agrees that building methods and the chaos in the building were major factors in the fire’s death otll. Newbury hopes the animated video and website will be a useful aid in teaching students today about history and fire safety, since it's not just a paragraph in a textbook.

As for Collinwood’s elementary students, the new, fire-safe building closed in 1979, stood vacant for decades, and was replaced with Memorial School in 2004.