Hard Lessons

Some history lessons are harder to learn than others.

Andy and I came face to face with a hard history lesson this summer.

About six miles outside of Camden, SC stands a memorial to the 77 victims of the 1923 Cleveland School fire. We visited the site when we traveled to Kershaw County. Neither of us spoke as we read the monument.

We walked to the model of the school– each in silent contemplation. This site is a somber and almost spiritual place. Young and old voices were stilled here and it just seemed wrong to break that silence.

Cleveland School–named for President Grover Cleveland– was a two story wooden structure with a stage on the second floor. The only exit from the second floor was a 30 inch wide wooden staircase that led from a cloakroom to the outside. There was no inside stairwell from the second floor to the first.

The stage was at the opposite end of the room from the stairwell. The door to the stairwell in the cloakroom opened inside. The school had no electricity but was lit by oil and kerosene lamps.

The school year was coming to a close on May 17. The community had gathered for the end of the year school play –Miss Topsy-Turvey. At least 200 –and some estimate over 300– people crowded into the second floor to see the performance.

A model of the school is part of the Memorial to the victims of the 1923 fire.

The stage was lit by kerosene lamps. One lamp, according to a source, was suspended by wire from the ceiling and was very close to the curtains.

One account says the lamp was hit during a scene change which weakened the wire. Others suspect that the heat from the lamp scorched the suspension wire. However it happened, the lamp fell with oil spilling across stage.

Spectators rushed to smother the flames with coats. For a moment it appeared the fire was out. Then the stage curtains burst into flames. People rushed toward the stairwell in a panic. Chairs toppled and people fell in the rush to escape. Several were trampled as others scrambled for the stairwell.

The stairwell door opened inside and survivors said that many were trapped behind the door as others ran to reach the stairs.

The stairwell collapsed and some inside jumped from the second floor windows. Some survived the leap, but with broken bones and other injuries. The Syracuse Herald of New York reported that the second floor collapsed soon after the stairway gave way and that the entire school was burned to the ground an hour after the fire started.

News of the fire spread around the nation quickly. From New York to Chicago, newspapers carried news of the tragedy. Initially, it was thought that 74 persons died. Later, the figure rose to 77. The remains that could not be identified were buried in a mass grave at Beulah United Methodist Church.

Of the 77 dead, 47 were children. The last survivor of the fire, Pearl Godwin Tiller, passed away in 2012. It was reported that every family in the community lost family members in the fire. A few years after the fire, The Dixon Brothers wrote a song about the tragedy called The Schoolhouse Fire.

The fire was one of the catalysts for laws mandating building fire codes and fire drills. After the fire, codes requiring doors to open outward and mandatory monthly fire drills were put in place by state governments. Much like the Silverstreet school bus/train tragedy, this history lesson is a hard lesson.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.