Remembering the Great Fire

Students recall the Great Fire and how it affected the Maryland Agricultural College:

Kenneth Grace
Click through to read more about Kenneth Grace in his 1973 oral history interview.

Kenneth Grace left campus for Thanksgiving in November 1912, but remembers how the fire affected his time at Maryland Agricultural College.

I came down home on the weekends and somebody called me up around here or told me that they had a big fire over there at College Park. And then when I went back up there, the old barracks, that was a big, white building — looked kind of like a castle, you know — well, it was just about a shell up there, and all smoked up and everything like that. And the school just grouped us together, I think by classes, and got room and board for us down in Hyattsville.

Read more here

Lee Pennington
Click to read more about Lee Pennington in the 1915 yearbook.

Lee Pennington, called, “Duck” as a cadet, hailed from Havre de Grace, MD. He was present to witness the fire and describes several theories as to how it began and why efforts to stop it failed.

So, during the Thanksgiving holidays in 1912, most of the students were on vacation. There was a dance, and it was a propitious moment for letting the water out of the water tank in order to have men come out there and insert a metal plug. So during the dance, at the intermission, some of the boys went up to one of the rooms of the new barracks. Apparently, they threw either a cigarette or a lighted match in the wastepaper basket. When the fire alarm rang out, I, who had not gone to the dance, ran to my fire station at the north end of the old barracks, grabbed my hose and no water came out. As a result, when we could have gotten the fire out at the initial alarm, lack of water made that impossible.

From Washington, fire engines were shipped out on the B&O Railroad on flat cars. No provision had been made to be able to take them off the flat cars. So they just had to sit on the flat cars while the barracks burned.

We had a few interesting experiences that evening. Due to the fact that we kept ammunition in our rooms, you could hear bullets going off all during the night. Those of us who were there cleared out as many rooms as possible and placed the belongings of the cadets down at the old flagpole, where the chapel now stands. Some scavengers from Lakeland, thinking perhaps they could pick up a little bit of loot, came up to the vicinity of the flagpole and we saw them beginning to filch clothing and stuff. So several of us cut loose at them with blank cartridges. You sure could hear them yellin’ going over the hill.

From then on, we were not in the barracks at all. We were farmed out to private homes in Berwyn, Riverdale, and Hyattsville.

Those of us who were there at the dance had to take their dates back. Those of us who were not at the dance just lay out on the ground around the flagpole, safeguarding the uniforms that we had been able to save. We were not able to save anything but uniforms due to the fact that we were not allowed to keep civilian clothes in our rooms, and they were all in the locker rooms in trunks and so we lost all our civilian clothing.

I lived initially in a home in Riverdale. The three of us didn’t like it, so we got transferred to a home down in Hyattsville. I remember this lady whose house we lived in way up on top of the hill — I think it was called Ravenswood. She tried to get her youngest daughter and me interested in marrying, but she didn’t. She liked me, and I liked her, but we were not interested in each other.

The school paid the rent, and she believed in spiritual stuff, and every once in a while when we weren’t studying she’d get us in the dining room with a little table and put her hands on it and try to get the table to lift. It wouldn’t lift while I was there, so I was finally kicked out due to the fact that I was a nonbeliever.

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Edwin Powell
Click to read more about Edwin Powell in the 1912 yearbook.

Edwin E. Powell is unofficially known as the “father of lacrosse” at Maryland. He organized the first varsity lacrosse team in 1910 and was an avid supporter of the program as an alumnus. Powell was a junior in Fall 1912 and witnessed the fire that devastated the Maryland Agricultural College. Powell took many of the photographs that appear on the Great Fire website, having donated the images to the University of Maryland Libraries many years after the event.

As a result of the fire… We were scattered into the various homes throughout College Park, Riverdale, Berwyn, and Hyattsville, just to get rooms for the boys. There was four of us in two houses, four in each house, adjacent to each other. One of them was the Carroll home. On main university drive, College Drive — is that what it is called now? … or University Drive; I don’t know which it is. Well, anyway, it’s the main road that went down to the streetcar tracks. The eight of us ate at the Carroll home. They supplied the food. The eight of us decided that, in view of the fact that the college was down and the military was all off, and we didn’t have it any more, that we would organize a fraternity. And so the eight of us formed the Gamma Pi Fraternity, which in 1917 was taken into the Sigma Nu fraternity. At the present time, there’s only two of those eight living.

It was just wiped out. The whole thing was wiped… Nobody had any uniforms or anything, you know. There was a few of them that were there that managed to get into the trunk room and throw their trunks out the window. But whether or not they got their own uniforms or not, I don’t know. But there was very little saved. I saved the college records — the kids’ records out of the record room — because that was on the ground floor, and we got in there. But that was all.

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Learn more about the fire by reading our previous posts, or visit The Great Fire website.


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