Janesville, WI School For the Blind Fire, Apr 1874


Particulars of the Burning of the Wisconsin State Instiution for the Education of the Blind at Janesville.

[From the Janesville (Wis.) Gazette, April 14.]

The people of the State have sustained a great loss in a partial destruction by fire of the main building of one of their charitable institutions, that for the education of their blind, located on the high lands aboe Rock River, one and a half miles south from this city. Yesterday was a warm day, with a strong wind blowing from the south. At about 7 o'clock p. m., while the pupils of the institution were in class romms on the first and second floors of the building, an alarm of fire was given by Mrs. Little, wife of the Superintendent.

Opening the door of the elevator and looking upward within it, she discovered that it was on fire above her. The elevator was built of wood on three sides, the fourth being an interior partition wall, opening by wooden doors into the several stories of the building. The building was heated by steam, the boilers for that purpose being in the basement of the west transverse wing. The chimney which carried off the smoke from the fires of these boilers came through the roof, about fifteen feet northwestwardly from the elevator.

Superintendent Little says: "At 5:30 p. m. the house was cold, and I went down and found no steam on. Fire was started up at once. The chip cuttings from the broom shop were often used to quicken the steam." These cuttings were used for this purpose at that time; and it is supposed that sparks from this light material were carried out of the top of the chimney. At the time a strong wind was blowing. And it is supposed that the eddy in the air current on the summit of the building caused this relation of objects, carried sparks from the chimney through the slats into the upper part of the ventilator and lodged them in the wood work. By the constant current of wind up the elevator, these sparks were fanned into a flame, which gradually worked down the ventilator and thus communicated with the interior of the building. Under the pressure of the current of wind in the elevator and the additional force created by the fire itself the flames spread rapidly. In the upper story of the main building is a water tank which was full of water, of the capacity of 100 barrels, connected by hose with each story of the building. Immediately upon the discovery of the fire Mr. Little turned the water into the hose, and did all that human effort could do to stay the progress of the flames. But all effort was vain. In a fiew minutes the fire had extended to the upper part of the elevator and from that to the roof, as well as outward into the contiguous rooms in the third and fourth stories. By 7:30 p. m., and before news of the impending disaster had been brought from the institution, the fire was seen from the city, the alarm given, the full force of the department mustered, and by 8 o'clock the two stream fire engines and hook and ladder company were on the ground ready for work. The fire department was confined in its efforts and supply of water to two cisterns, not more than half filled with water. Before the engines commenced work the flames had burst trhough the windows of the third and fourth stories on both sides of the building; and by the time they had begun to make an impression on the fire the water was exhausted.

From this point the progress of the work of destruction was preactically uninterrupted. Desperate and heroic efforts were made to confine it to the wing where it originated; but the flames, borne onward by a fierce wind, swept through the halls and corridors of the building with resistless force, and by 9 o'clock the whole of the interior and roof of the central building was on fire. Within thirty minutes the flames had extended to the east wing, burst through the roof of the central building, and ascended the cupola. At this time the whole city was lighted by the majestic burning; the scene was one of awful grandeur; the flames lifted their firery and defiant tongues high up in the heavens, and under the impulse given by the fierce wind reeled and swept forward in a northeasterly direction. By 10 o'clock the cupola and roof of the main building fell in, followed within thirty minutes by the roof the east wing. At 11 o'clock the whole interior of the building was burned down to the first floor, and the Wisconsin Institute for the Education of the Blind was no more.

The books and records were all saved. A considerable portion of the furniture was also carried out; but in a damaged condition. All the inmates but one are accounted for and safe, Henry Nelson, a blind man from Beloit, subject to attacks of epilepsy, who has been in the institution for some time for the purpose of learning the art of making brooms. He returned to the institution yesterday from a visit to his friends in the country. His room was situated near the southeast corner of the west transverse wing, and near where the fire originated. When the class readings commenced, which were in progress at the time for the fire was discovered, he was excused and went to his room. Superintendent Little received his injuries in desperate efforts to reach this man's room. And the fire drove him back only when it became evident that he must abandon this effort or lose his life. A servant girl belonging to the institution says she saw this man Nelson outside the building after the alarm was given, but up to the present he has not been found, and it is feared that under the excitement of the first alarm an attack of epilepsy was induced, which rendered him helpless, until it was too late to effect his escape from the building.

Experienced builders state that the walls of the south front and on both ends are uninjured, and that the north walls to the second story will not need to be taken down. The boilers and other appliances in the basement are said to be perfect. The foundations and basement cost from $15,000 to $20,000. The shops cost $12,000. It is believed that $70,000, with present decreased cost of material and labor, will replace the building and furniture in a better condition than it was before the fire.

We understand that the board contemplate renting temporary quarters in the city for the board and accommodation of the pupils, and that the school will be continued, with scarcely an interruption.

Inter Ocean, Chicago, IL 17 Apr 1874