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.

Villanova College fires, Elmer Stable fire

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)