The first of three disastrous fires which Villanova College has experienced within the past 40 years occurred on January 10, 1912. Many of the dramatic details of that bitter cold day, when the clothing of the firemen froze as soon as water touched it, have been told to your columnist by two of the old time firemen who were in the midst of the fight against a blaze, which for a time, threatened several other buildings on the campus, in addition to St. Rita’s Hall. These two are Charles E. Clark and Otis G. Hunsicker. Probably there are many others in the community who, either as firemen or spectators, remember the occasion.
The burned structure was the ” oldest of the College group, having been erected in 1808, almost 40 years before it was purchased for use as the original monastery of the Augustinian Order. At the time of the fire St. Rita’s Hall was occupied as a dormitory by students preparing for the priesthood.
The fire, which broke out about two o’clock in the afternoon, was first fought by the students themselves before alarms were sent in to the Radnor Fire Company, the Bryn Mawr Fire Company, Merion No.1, the Autocar Company and the Union Fire Company of Bala and Narbeth.
The Radnor boys got the first water on the blaze, although very shortly afterwards four other streams were playing on it. The structure of the building made the fire exceedingly difficult to fight. However, Radnor soon got its line of hose right into the midst of the flames, pouring thousands of gallons of water where it was most effective.
Even Tolentine Academy, which, was only some ten or fifteen feet away from St. Rita’s Hall did not catch fire, which, according to the account in “The Suburban” of January 12, “was due to the intelligent work of the volunteer firemen.”
Although none from the Radnor Fire Company was injured, several from other companies had to be treated in the College Infirmary and by doctors and nurses sent in, the ambulance from Bryn Mawr Hospital.
Charles Clark still recalls that when his frozen clothing had to be removed, the only other available garments at the moment were priestly ones!
Coffee and sandwiches were served to the fire fighters as the afternoon wore on, and it became more and more evident that the flames were under control. At one time it was feared that St. Thomas of Villanova Church and many of the other buildings might be imperiled. That they were all saved was due not only to the heroic work of the several fire companies, but to the help of college students as well. At one time a number of the latter were kept busy wheeling soft coal in wheel barrows from the basement of the main building to supply the Bryn Mawr steamer.
By six o’clock that evening the fire was under control. With most of the contents except those on the fourth floor saved, the loss was still estimated at approximately $75,000 by the Reverend Doctor E. G. Dohan, then president of the College. Many of the firemen stayed on until midnight, in order to watch smoldering embers that might burst into flames again.
Returning to the fire house in Wayne, where they put their equipment in shape, the firemen had but a few hours sleep before the siren sounded again. This time it was a call to the stable and garage on the John A. Brown place near Devon. In spite of their weariness, the fire laddies were on the scene within seven minutes after the alarm was sounded. It was necessary to keep the fire in check with chemicals at first, until the Radnor Fire Company could borrow additional hose from Berwyn, since the stables were about 1500 feet from the source of water supply.
Back at the Fire House again, the firemen did not even have time to thaw out their hose before John Purnell, who was working for Dr. Elmer at the time, rushed across the street to say that the second floor of the Elmer stable was on fire. Awakening from sleep, Purnell had found his bed on fire from a nearby coal oil stove. First carrying the stove outside, he had then run across Audubon avenue to summon help from the fire company.
About a dozen members of the company who were still attempting to thaw out their hose, soon brought the fire under control, thus saving not only that property, but the George M. Aman stable as well, since it practically adjoined that of Dr. Elmer’s. The Aman house was then situated on the site of the present Post Office building.
Thus ended about 36 hours of almost continous duty for Wayne’s firemen in the sub-zero weather of January, 1912.
In May of the same year Radnor Company firemen, under Chief Wilkins, made a quick early morning run to the William T. Wright estate south of Wayne, only to find the stables already beyond saving. Due to a mistake in sending out the alarm from the Wright home, the fire already had almost an hour’s start on the firemen. They worked heroically to save the other buildings, knowing that at any moment there might be a terrific explosion from a quantity of dynamite and boxes of fulmination caps and fuses stored in the garage, in addition to a large tank of gasoline under the fioor of the building.
Tons of water were thrown on the blaze by the combined forces of the Radnor and Bryn Mawr Fire companies, their source of supply being a 36,000 gallon reservoir recently constructed on the Wright property. Dense smoke and intense heat almost suffocated the firemen who handled the nozzles in relays, being able to work between the buildings for only a minute or two at a time.
Although horses, carriages, harness and other equipment were saved earlier by the neighbors and by servants on the Wright estate, the stable, a building which had been remarkable for its architectural beauty, was a total loss, with a value of about $50,000 placed on it. Most tragic of all were the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. James Stewart, employees of the Wright’s, who lived in the second fioor apartment of the stable. Mr. Stewart was carried from the flaming building while still alive, although he died later in the Bryn Mawr Hospital. After hours of patient search, all that remained of Mrs. Stewart’s body was found in the ruins of the fire by Otis Hunsicker, of the Radnor Fire Company.
(To be Continued)