Villanova College fires

In the past forty years, Villanova College has expeienced three costly and disastrous fires, the first of which, occurring on January 10, 1912, was described in this column in the issue of February 21. This was in St. Rita’s Hall, oldest building in the college group, occupied at the time by students preparing for the priesthood.

The second occurred 16 years later to the very month, on January 29, 1928, when College Hall burned to the ground with an estimated loss of about two million dollars.

Like the day of the first fire, this was one of bitter cold, added to on this occasion by a 20-mile-an hour wind which quickly fanned the first flames into an all-consuming blaze. Five minutes after the alarm was sounded the Radnor Fire Company had arrived from one direction and the Bryn Mawr Company from the other. Within short order 12 other companies were on the scene, including Philadelphia Company No. 65, from 64th and Haverford avenue.

But even by the time of arrival of the first two companies, College Hall was a roaring furnace. Five minutes later the fifth fioor crashed down through the well of the building into the first fioor even as the Radnor firemen were going up the steps of College Hall, to lay a hose line. Fortunately there were no lives lost, though several of the men were injured.

By this time James K. Dunne, who as chief of the Radnor Fire Company was directing the work of all the companies, saw that it was impossible to save College Hall or its contents. He then directed the efforts of all the men to the adjoining monastery, which the high wind was now placing in grave danger of destruction.

Although there was no serious lack of water on the occasion the cold was so bitter that many of the firemen had frost bitten fingers from handling the heavy, highpressured hose. After some hours of hard work during which 12 streams pumped thousands of gallons of water on the blaze in College Hall, this inferno of fire was under control. None of the adjoining buildings on the campus suffered at all, due to the heroic work of the 14 fire companies.

Temporary housing for the students who had been living in College Hall was immediately provided while plans were being made for another College Hall, with new equipment to replace the old.

The third fire occurred some four and a half years later in August, 1932. (In the last issue your columnist stated by mistake that this was the second fire, and gave the date as August 1925.) Although it was vacation time for the regular students, summer school was in session with a good number in attendance.

The fire which started in the room of one of the students in the Monastery at about 11 o’clock in the morning gained headway with alarming rapidity. The laboratory assistant who first discovered the blaze immediately rushed into the office of Father Joseph M. Dougherty shouting “Fire” at the top of his lungs. The cry was taken up on all sides, echoing from end to end of the high building. Father Dougherty not only turned in the alarm, but immediately started to supervise the work of salvage.

Four nearby fire engines responded at once, Radnor, Berwyn, Bryn Mawr and Lower Merion. They were quickly followed by all the other fire companies from Bala Cynwyd to Paoli, as well as those from West Chester, Darby and Haverford Township, and even by two from Philadelphia.

As in the fire of 1928, Chief Dunne was in charge of co-ordlnating the work of all the companies since the fire was in the Radnor township district. In spite of the great number of firemen and of fite equipment, it was difficult to combat the blaze because of the shortage in the water supply. There were only three fire hydrants in the immediate vicinity in addition to two private ones on the campus. Although hose lines were stretched half a mile to Township Line road where there were a number of fire plugs, the main part of the Monastery was doomed by the time these additional streams were in operation. Chief Dunne’s first orders had been to fight the flames on the fourth floor of the west wing. In order to do this hose lines were taken up the broad stairway and despite the intense heat and the danger from falllng timbers and partitions the Radnor men stuck it out, confining the fire in this wing to the fourth floor. Several of the Radnor flremen were injured, among them Clarence Barber, who was buried under a falling partition. Chief Dunne was badly cut on the nose and face, while among others injured were assistant chief Eddie Clark, Thoroas F. Dunne, Hugh Dietrich, John Snyder, John J. McGovern, John J. McDermott and John Wood. Many flremen from other companies were also injured to a greater or lesser degree; the total numbering about 60. Several men were removed to Bryn Mawr Hospital, while the greater number were treated on the grounds by ambulance crews from St. Joseph’s Hospital, St. Agnes Hospital, and Conshohocken Hospital, as well as from Bryn Mawr.

The blaze had been raging for only about half an hour when it became apparent that the towers and cupolas of the monastery were about to collapse. Captain Lafferty, of the Radnor Township. Police immediately ordered a space of 200 feet cleared in front of the building. And it was only shortly thereafter that the roof caved in. By noon the top floors had all been destroyed. And when by 3 o’clock the blaze had been virtually extinguished, “the monastery presented the picture of a charred and blackened shell, with only the walls of the three lower fioors left standing.” Among the few precious objects in the building to be saved were the charter of Pope Pius VI, signed in 1796 authorizing the founding of the College by the Augustinian Order; the Blessed Sacrament from the Chapel and a very few paintings from the famous Doyle collection. All these had been carried out by the summer students until they were halted by the firemen because of danger of this work of rescue.
Adding to the terrific confusion of the fire itself, motorists from miles around, who had been attracted by the dense columns of smoke, clogged the roads in all directions on the day of the fire. And even as late as the Sunday following the fire, the service of four Radnor police officers were required to keep traffic lanes open to travel in the vicinity of the college.

In spite of the staggering loss of its faculty building, Villanova went ahead with its registration plans for September 15. Student dormitories and class room facilities were in no way touched by the conflagration. And the clerical faculty could be housed in temporary quarters around the campus until such a time as sufficient funds could be raised for a new monastery. And thus in spite of two fires in less than five years with losses totalling several millions of dollars Villanova College planned to carry on as before.

1929 Devon Inn fire, 1st home of Valley Forge Military Academy in 1928 by Major Baker, St. Luke’s School

Within a little more than a year’s time, Devon was the scene of two fires so disastrous that they have gone down in the annals of the community. The second one, that of the fireworks explosion and I subsequent fire in April, 1930, has been described in the last two issues of this column.

The other, which occurred early on the morning of January 18, 1929, was the fire which totally destroyed the Devon Inn, occupied at this time as the first home of the Valley Forge Military Academy, Major Baker—now General Baker—having established it there in September, 1928.

In the very early hours of a cold January morning, Lieutenant Pusey, then instructor in languages at the Academy, was aroused from sleep by the odor of smoke. Immediately springing into action, he rushed to the fourth floor where he found a small fire in the hallway, a blaze so inconsequential at first that it did not seem much of a threat to the well built brick structure, so recently renovated by Major Baker.

Nevertheless, Lt. Pusey immediately awakened Captain Jackson Lahn, academy commandant, who in turn ordered the school bugler to sound the fire alarm. With overcoats over their pajamas and with bare feet thrust into unlaced shoes, a number of students manned the numerous fire extinguishers. Flames soon drove them from the fourth floor down to the third, where they continued their ineffectual fight against disaster. So serious did the situation become almost immediately that Major Baker ordered a complete evacuation of the entire building. Thls was followed by a muster call that showed every student and all the Academy personnel present and uninjured.

By this time telephone alarms had brought not only the Radnor Fire Company, but those from Paoli, Berwyn, Bryn Mawr, Ardmore, Swedeland and Bridgeport as well. But so handicapped were these volunteers by the inadequacy of the water supply that they realized almost from the moment of their arrival that any attempt to save the school was futile.

The building was a huge tower of flames and smoke already. And only an hour after the fire was discovered the entire central portion of the structure collapsed, dividing the fire into two units. By dawn only the smoldering jagged sections of the brick walls remained. As told in last week’s column, these grim gaunt reminders of the fire remained there pointing skyward for more than a year when in April, 1930, they were shattered to the ground by the force of the Devon fireworks explosion.

The building that had been so quickly consumed by flames had had an interesting history. The original Devon Park Hotel had been I built in 1876 to house the overflow of visitors to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Three years later fire destroyed this building. However, it was not long before another Devon Hotel, this time a very ornate building, was I erected on the same site as the first hotel.

For some years there was great rivalry for the patronage of fashionable PhiIadelphia summer boarders between the Devon Inn and the Bryn Mawr Hotel. The latter, on the site of what is now the Baldwin School, was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. This rivalry ended in a complete victory for the Devon Inn when the Devon Horse Show made its initial bow. The show immediately became a nationally famous event with entries and visitors from all over the United States. The socially elite from New York and the Long Island Colony, from Boston, Chicago and many other cities throughout the country filled the Devon hostelry to capacity each Horse Show season.

And when the Bryn Mawr Hotel burned to the ground the Devon Inn lost its only serious rival. Its popularity continued for some years. Then in 1924 the property was sold and the building converted into the Devon Manor School for Girls. But two years later the Devon Park Hotel Company had to resume possession of the property again. Then, two years later Major Baker acquired it for the Military Academy, which he was just then organizing. After spending about $250,000 on renovations to the building, the school opened there in September, 1928, with an enrollment of about 150, with many more expected for the next year, since the building could easily house several hundred.

Before the ashes of the fire of the school were cold, students were temporarily quartered in the Brookline Square Club in Brookline, Delaware County. Their stay there was but a matter of hours, however, since an agreement was made almost immediately between Major Baker and the officials of St. Davids Golf Club to house them there for the time being. It was a building admirably suited to the purpose, since it had been built for St. Luke’s School, a well known boy’s school of an earlier date. The Golf Club would retain only the space necessary for their office and the locker rooms. All of the main club building, together with the former Crawford House, was requited for school purposes. Had it not been for this quick solution to the Academy’s problem, the situation would nave been a serious one.

The work of preparing the Club house for its 150 new tenants was strenuous, indeed, requiring cooperation on the part of the school management and the Golf Club officials. However, by night everyone was as comfortable as possible under the trying circumstances. Cots and blankets had been requisitioned from the Philadelphia arsenal and placed in the old St. Luke’s School dormitories, and the commissary department had swung into action in the large kitchens. Thus were living requirements for Academy students and personnel met almost immediately.

With the passing of the years since then the Academy has acquired not only the St. Luke School property for its own, but much adjacent ground as well. The main buildings are still located, however, at the northeast corner of Eagle and Radnor roads, where the Academy found refuge the day following the fire.

One of the most disastrous fires that not only Radnor Township, but the entire Main Line has ever experienced will be described in detail in next week’s column. This was the second Villanova College fire which occurred on August 2, 1925, resulting in damage amounting to almost one million dollars.

At that time the monastery of the College was practically destroyed with not only the loss of the building, but of valuable furnishings and many objects both of art and of sacred value. Except for a half dozen pieces the fine Doyle Collection of paintings, valued at between $300,000 and $500,000, was entirely destroyed. James K. Dunne as chief of the Radnor Fire Company directed the efforts of the many companies from not only other sections of the Main Line, but from Philadelphia, West Chester, Upper Darby, Cynwyd and other sections. Although no lives were lost, some 60 persons suffered more or less serious injuries, including Chief Dunne himself. It was a spectacular and devastating fire.

(To be continued)

Property losses from Fireworks Company explosion, Canteen of the Wayne Red Cross Branch, the Neighborhood League, Devon Baby Clinic, Relief Fund

Property losses from the disastrous explosion at the Pennsylvania Fireworks Company of Devon in April, 1930, were widespread, the largest individual one being that at the Benjamin C. Betner Paper Box Manufacturing Company on Lancaster Pike, about a quarter of a mile distant from the explosion.

Here the entire interior of the plant was wrecked, with a loss of many thousands of dollars. Forty employees were injured, including the driver of a truck who was taking in a load of bags at the plant. He was knocked unconscious by the first blast, remaining so for some hours afterwards.

The offices of the C. A. Lobb Lumber Yard were ruined, while the plate glass windows of the handsome show rooms of the Packard Motor Company were completely shattered. Mrs. Charles M. Lea’s mansion, in Devon, was damaged to the extent of about $50,000.

Other nearby Devon homes that felt the full force of the explosion were Mrs. William McCone’s, located within a couple of hundred yards of the plant, which was wrecked beyond repair; the Stephen Fuguet and the Victor Thomas homes. The walls of the old Devon Inn, which had survived the fire of a year before when the building was occupied by the Valley Forge Military Academy, were blown down by the force of the fireworks blast. All of the small houses just opposite the scene of the explosion were so badly damaged that they had to be razed to the ground, as were seven large residences on Old Lancaster road.

Personal accidents were numerous, including one to Constable George Morris, who was struck in the stomach by a concrete block blown through the window of his house near the plant as he sat at breakfast. Roma Torillo, a barber in the shop of Nick Irete, a quarter of a mile from the explosion, was injured when a door was blown down. The clock in the shop stopped at 9:50, the time of the first explosion.

By some vagary the large greenhouses of Alfred M. Campbell, located in nearby Strafford, escaped damage except for a few broken panes of glass. Large windows in the stores of J. S. McIntyre and John Donato as well as the Wayne Lunch Room, all located on North Wayne avenue in Wayne, were shattered. Small pieces of the red paper used in the wrapping of fireworks, torpedoes and small bombs, were picked up afterwards at points as far distant as Norristown.

When the last of the minor explosions that followed the major one was over, the work of relief and rehabilitation immediately started. Indeed, while confusion was still at its height, Mrs. Alda Makarov, secretary of the Neighborhood League of Wayne, collected all the homeless children and took them to the Neighborhood League House on West Wayne avenue, where they were fed and cared for during that entire day. And within an hour of the time of the explosion the Devon Branch of the Needlework Guild was on the scene, distributing garments to those who had lost everything.

Although the Fire Works Company plant was situated in Tredyffrin township, it was nevertheless in the territory covered by both the Wayne Red Cross Branch and the Neighborhood League. It was at the Devon Baby Clinic of the latter organization that relief headquarters were set up almost before the sounds of the last explosion were heard. Here, under Mrs. E. W. S. Tingle, chairman of the Canteen of the Wayne Red Cross, food and hot coffee were served without cessation for more than 24 hours to destitute families, as well as to members of the State Constabulary who were on duty. The clinic also served as a registration center, always a most important spot in time of disaster.

Among other groups who assisted in the work of relief were Anthony Wayne Post of the American Legion and its Auxiliary. The women who composed the latter opened headquarters in North Wayne, which they had heated and ready for use almost immediately. The Wayne Chamber of Commerce took as their special project the housing of furniture removed from wrecked homes. The Men’s Club, the Saturday Club and both Girl and Boy Scout troops all did their part, also.

Red Cross disaster workers sent from National Headquarters in Washington estimated $40,000 as the minimum required for the proper care of sufferers from the explosion. With expenses of administration taken care of by National Red Cross, every dollar contributed by the community could go to direct relief. Hearts and pocketbooks from far and near opened wide to the appeal almost before it was made. By the time the April 11 edition of “The Suburban” had gone to press, contributions of more than $16,000 had already been received. Before the end of April this had reached a total of more than $36,000, with more still to come. J. S. C. Harvey, of Radnor, was made the chairman of this relief fund.

Less than a year before the explosion, the Wayne Red Cross Branch had organized a Disaster Relief Committee to operate in any calamity that might occur in the district covered by the Branch. Thomas W. Hulme, then president of the Township Commissioners, was chairman of this committee with its various subcommittees, among them those on food, shelter, registration and finances.

Among the first people on the scene of the disaster were Mr. Hulme and Mrs. Willlam Henry Brooks, at that time chairman of the Wayne Red Cross. Colonel Horace A. Shelmlre, chairman of the Housing Committee of the Disaster Relief, arrived shortly with a hundred army cots and a number of blankets from the Quartermaster’s Department of the U. S. Marine Corps. These cots were put up in various homes where the homeless had been welcomed.

This then was the beginning of immediate relief work, which was not to end for many months. Families had to be re-united, food and clothing provided, and long range plans made for rehabilitation which included replacement of clothing, homes and furnishings.

Almost the first task at hand was the difficult one of clearing grounds of such explosive materials as still remained. This was work that had to be done by men especially qualified by experience in dealing with various types of explosives. During this period the property was thoroughly policed and all would-be trespassers or curiosity seekers warned to stay away.

The fireworks plant was never rebuilt, and in the 22 years that have elapsed the entire appearance of the area has changed to such an extent that little or no trace remains of the tragedy. The site is reached by taking a right turn onto Conestoga road just after going under the overpass of the P. & W. at Strafford. After a short distance one comes tb a large plot of ground on the right where building lots are being sold and small houses erected. Already one ranch type house has been completed at the extreme western edge of the old fireworks company site, and other houses are under construction.

(To be continued)

1930 Pennsylvania Fireworks Company explosion & inquest, Valley Forge Military Academy cadets help police

In recounting the earlier fires in this section, no roster of them would be complete without the story of the Devon disaster of April, 1930, when fire itself was but an aftermath of the terrific explosion that rocked the countryside for miles around. It was the worst calamity ever to hit the Main Line up to that time, and certainly there have been none to equal it since then.

The plant of the Pennsylvania Fireworks Company, located on the Old Lancaster Pike in Devon, had long been a community menace. It was located in a thickly settled area. Large quantities of black powder and other explosives were stored on the premises, as was a big supply of many varieties of finished firecrackers. Gas stoves were used in heating the plant and there were gas jets in the drying room.

At the inquest, the Coroner’s jury gave one or more of these factors as the probable cause of the explosion. They urged the enactment of legislation at Harrisburg “to cover the manufacture of fireworks, taking into consideration the location of plants and quantity of raw and finished material to be carried at anyone time. . . also providing for frequent and rigid inspection of such plants.”

But such legislation would be too late then to save the lives of the ten employees who were killed, among them four children under 16 years of age. Less than a year before, Mrs. AIda A. Makarov, secretary of the Neighborhood League, had written to the Bureau of Inspection of the Department of Labor and Industry at Harrisburg, stating that on inspection they had found only two girls employed, and both of these were over 18 years of age. The remaining five employees were men over 21, they stated. Nevertheless, four of the explosion casualties were children less than 16 years old, among them possibly the only person or persons who knew the exact cause of the disaster.

The force and the roar of the heavy detonation of the explosion when it came on that Thursday morning of April 3, 22 years ago this spring, was felt for miles around, particularly to the eastward. One of the peculiar features was that while some homes only a half-mile or so west of the plant were undamaged, others in a five mile area to the east felt the force of the explosion to greater extent.

Automobiles and pedestrians converged on Devon from all directions, hampering the work of fire men and of other rescue workers. “The Suburban” of the day following the explosion describes the scene as viewed from a nearby hilltop as one “of terrible destruction . . . flames enveloped several small buildings near the plant scattered over a ten-acre plot of ground . . . the noise of exploding fireworks and the bombs reminded one of the Argonne. . . a dense pall of smoke hung over the valley, lighted up by constantly flashing minor explosions. A third great blast endangered the lives of firemen fighting the conflagration and caused the watching crowd to flee to safety.

The Pennsylvania Railroad signal tower at Devon was directly in the line of destruction, while the overhead wires were all down across the tracks. The signal man himself was thrown out of his chair. Max Swartz, signalman in the Eagle tower (near Strafford) was severely hurt, but stuck to his post until relief came.

Fire companies from all along the Main Line made record runs to the scene, the Radnor Company being among the first to arrive. Actual fire was confined to the buildings of the fireworks plant, and to a number of automobiles parked around it. The explosion, however, scattered burning debris over a wide area, and numerous field fires added to the difficulties of the firemen. All the firemen on the scene of the fire itself repeatedly risked their lives I in the inferno of blazing fireworks.

The immediate area was cordoned off and the State police and the Radnor township police, assisted by cadets from the Valley Forge Military Academy, patrolled the danger zone. On all sides private cars were commandeered to assist the ambulances in rushing, the injured to Bryn Mawr Hospital. Hospital doctors, as well as those residing nearby, were on the scene to give first aid treatment as were a number of nurses. The Wayne Red Cross canteen went into immediate action under Mrs. E. W. S. Tingle, serving hot coffee to the firemen and other rescuers.

(To be continued)