“$1,000,000 Blaze at Bridgewater”: A Campus Transformed

The Fire

“$1,000,000 Blaze at Bridgewater” rang the newspaper headlines. “A million-dollar fire at the state normal school at Bridgewater endangered the lives of more than 600 girl and men students.” Other estimates put the final damage done by this early morning blaze much higher than the early estimated figure of $1,000,000. At 5 a.m. on the morning of December 10, 1924, the alarm sounded for the evacuation of Bridgewater State Normal School’s most prized possession, the iconic brick Normal Building. Hundreds of students were abruptly snapped out of their slumber by the screaming of a steam whistle to find chaos and panic. Soon after, the entire student body watched the majority of its campus burn to the ground. Before sufficient help had a chance to arrive, the campus’ flagship building had been destroyed. The Normal Building functioned as both classroom space and model teacher training space and dominated the campus quadrangle similar to Boyden Hall today. The intensity of the fire caused flames to spread to the original Tillinghast Hall, a dormitory, as well as a cottage where female faculty stayed, known as Old Woodward Hall. The campus quadrangle, previously with a building located on each of the four sides, was left with one remaining building after the fire.

The fire of 1924 should have not been as destructive as it turned out to be. Firefighters from all over the region made it in time to keep the flames confined to the Normal Building. However, lack of water pressure and a bad-tempered wind forced the frustrated firefighters to watch in desperation while the flames and embers from the blaze were swept to another building nearly 100 feet away, the original Tillinghast Hall. Later inquiries came to the conclusion that the lack of water pressure was a result of inadequate maintenance of the Bridgewater Water Company, and the negligence of the state public utilities department to keep the company up to code. Due to lack of water pressure firefighters could not reach the top floor of the Normal Building with water from their hoses, and reports indicated firefighters, with the help of students, went as far as to pile boxes on the back of wagons to stand on just to reach the second floor with water. Principal Arthur C. Boyden was later stated as saying the entire group of buildings could have been saved if the water mains functioned properly.

What is often overlooked when reflecting on the fire of 1924 is the destruction of historical material contained inside the Normal Building. Valuable oil paint portraits of the school’s first four principals were lost. Today the portraits hanging in Boyden Hall of the early principals are not the originals, but were replicated from like images. Oddly enough, though the state had no insurance for the buildings that burned, the portraits were insured by the Normal Alumni Association, which helped in the recreation of them. Many of the old photographs in the Maxwell Library’s Archives & Special Collections are of the interior of the Normal Building before the fire, and show numerous paintings, wall maps, books, display cases of minerals, and other items of historic interest – all lost without even an inventory to know what was there.

Following the devastation was a very brief period of mourning that saw notes of sympathy and offers of help come from all over New England, and as far away as Illinois. Action on the rebuilding of the Bridgewater State Normal School was nearly instantaneous. By the morning of December 11, the day after the fire, the start of a new campus had already begun. Once the remains of the buildings had cooled, a gang of prisoners from the nearby prison were put to work cleaning up the debris. Complicating the cleanup were the thousands of people from all over the region who came to witness the wreckage after reading the newspaper accounts. Within a week plans had been made by the school, the town, and the state Board of Education to reopen the school by early January and for the school and the students to cope the best they could without interrupting the curriculum. Classrooms were quickly constructed in the buildings left standing, the basement of the girls’ dormitory and in the gymnasium.

The crisis was viewed by the school and the town as an opportunity to not only rebuild, but to improve. The town’s water facilities were updated. The donation of private land bordering the campus allowed for future growth. By June 1925 the building of a new campus had begun with funding from the state as well as a large proportion of needed funds coming directly from the town of Bridgewater. The town’s investment and support of the school resulted in the opening of two new buildings in June 1926 at a cost of $750,000. These two buildings, now known as Boyden Hall and Harrington Hall remain an important part of the University today. The cause of the fire was never found, leading to speculation and blame that the combination of stray bits of leftover food, matches, and mice were the culprits.

Condolence Letters and Notes

Bridgewater Normal School principal Arthur C. Boyden received scores of telegrams, cards, and letters of sympathy and concern from family, alumni, and other educators after the fire. Principals of the other Massachusetts State Normal Schools, as well as the principal of the Rhode Island College of Education, wrote to offer assistance of any kind.


 

Faculty Mutual Record, March 1925

Lessons Learned

The Factory Mutual Record, a monthly journal published by the Inspection Department of the Associated Factory Mutual Fire Insurance Companies, featured an article about the destructive fire at Bridgewater Normal School in its March 1925 issue. The article provides details about the fire and the efforts to contain the damage. It concludes with their estimate of the damage ($900,000) and a summary of the lessons learned from this disaster.


 

Back to Top