Collinwood School Fire

(Orig. Published 9/2003)

On Ash Wednesday, March 4, 1908, Collinwood’s Lake View Elementary School became the site of the country’s worst school tragedy.  Shortly after 9:00 a.m., and while school was in session, overheated steam pipes ignited nearby wood joists.  The fire spread quickly, and roughly half of the students were unable to escape.  In the end, 172 children, 2 teachers and 1 rescuer perished in the fire.

Initially, it was believed that the students were unable to escape because the doors opened inward.  This later proved to be in error–the children died partly as a result of their own panic.  They rushed the doors, which soon jammed with the bodies of those trying so desperately to get out. Some teachers who could not get their classes to the crowded exits led the children out through the second and third floor windows. 

Collinwood at that time was a small community of roughly 8,000 citizens, and many families lived near the school.  When word of the fire spread through the neighborhood, hysterical parents rushed to the scene to find and rescue their children.  Some tried to pull the children out of the doorways, or stood below the upper windows in an attempt to catch the jumpers.  Sadly, most of their efforts proved futile, and they were left to watch helplessly as the fire consumed the entire building.

The bodies of 19 students could not be identified.  The city of Collinwood purchased a common grave at Lake View Cemetery for the unclaimed children.

Although devastating, some good came out of this tragedy.  It enhanced public awareness of fire safety and prevention, resulting in improved building and fire codes, as well as the nationwide practice of fire drills.

This photo is used with express permission from Cleveland State University Library, and is from the library’s Special Collection, The Cleveland Memory Project, “Postcards of Cleveland,” donated by Professor Walter Leedy. Many of the works are acquired by donations, and CSU makes no assertions as to ownership of any original copyrights (if they still exist) to digitized or reproduced images.  

In 1910, a new school was constructed directly next to the site of Lake View Elementary School.  The new school was named Collinwood Memorial.  Next door, and on top of the site of the old school, a Memorial Garden was built.  According to John Stark Bellamy II, in his book “The Maniac in the Bushes and More Tales of Cleveland Woe,” some grieving parents protested this action.  One mother, for instance, did not want her child to go to a school where, presumably, the ashes of his brother lay next door.

Collinwood Memorial School eventually shut down in the 1970’s and has been abandoned ever since. 

During the 20+ years that the school has stood vacant, it has acquired quite a reputation for hauntings and other weird activity.  Some neighbors say that they have seen a light that will first appear in a second floor window, and then travel along the halls of the school before disappearing.  One reader reports that those brave enough to venture inside the old building at night will experience sudden chills and hear the faint screams of children. 

Even during the day when we visited the site, it was apparent that the neighborhood has become pretty rough, so we won’t test that particular legend and will instead leave it to the imagination and sensibility of the reader. 

Below are some photographs of the school as it appears today.

A view of the right side entrance.


Another view of the left entrance, toward the back.

The front walkway leading to the Memorial Garden, and the original site of the disaster.

Below, a side view of the memorial.  The tiles are inscribed with the names of those who perished in the fire.

A close-up of the new memorial plaque erected shortly after a rededication ceremony in May 2003.

The grounds behind the memorial.

Some may wonder why the Collinwood Memorial school has stood vacant for so long.  Apparently, the reasons are less mysterious, and have more to do with disagreement over what to do with the building.  Some plans had called for reopening the school, others for use as a community center or apartment building.  Most recently, plans have been presented by Northeast Shores Development Corp. (“NSDC”) to raze the building and redevelop the property for construction of single family homes.  This has been met with some opposition, especially by those who wish to preserve the school.  It is interesting to note that NSDC sponsored the rededication of the memorial garden, perhaps as a way to appease those who are concerned with preserving the integrity of this historic site. 

 

UPDATES

3/14/04:

The Memorial school is being demolished to make way for construction of yet another new school on the site of one of this country’s worst school disasters.  Demolition began March 12th, 2004.  Fortunately, the Memorial Gardens next door to the site will be preserved.  For more information, check out the Cleveland Municipal Schools news article by clicking here.  Many thanks to Marguerite for providing the information.

RESOURCES

Sun Newspaper Links on the Memorial school:

“New State Marker Honors Lakeview Fire Victims” 5/22/03

“Tragic Past Leads to Present Lessons” 10/18/01

“Reaction to Proposal is Mixed” 10/28/99

“School Could be Razed for Homes” 10/28/99

To read more about the Collinwood school fire disaster, including heart-wrenching eyewitness accounts, check out the book The Maniac in the Bushes and More Tales of Cleveland Woe by John Stark Bellamy II.

CSU maintains an extensive archive of newspapers, postcards, photographs and other historical materials, and is an excellent source for anyone researching Cleveland/Northeast Ohio history.  For more information, or to simply explore the archives, we strongly encourage you to visit their website by clicking here. 

9/18/03:  Adam writes of ghost lights and his own creepy exploration of the school:

My dad used to live just down the street from the Collinwood Memorial school (back in the 1980s when it was a much safer neighborhood). In fact, we could see the back of the school from his house. A few times we did notice lights on inside the building (this was before all of the upper windows were boarded up), but later in the night they were off. We used to take walks over by the school, since it was deserted and usually pretty quiet over there. One night we found an open door, so needless to say we ventured in. I did feel uneasy in the building, but it might have been because it was so big and empty (and who knows who else could have been in there). The building inside was in decent shape for being abandoned for so long, with much of the school supplies left behind (desks, erasers, books). Only in certain areas were things trashed, or classroom windows broken in.

In the early 1990s, they were talking about reviving the building for some sort of use… but apparently that never happened, as it remains boarded up today.

Before the memorial was built on top of it, there used to be an empty area that you stepped down into that was supposedly the remains of the swimming pool from the original school.

8/2/03:  Spooky things are afoot at the Collinwood Memorial School, as told by Michelle:

My dad told me about a school, I don’t recall the name of it, but it is found in Collinwood right off of Lakeshore on 149th Street. It was an elementary school which burned down in I think the 1930s or 40s. Almost the whole school of kids died because the doors opened inward while they all were pushing on the doors to get out. They have a monument by the boarded up school with all of the names of the students and staff that died. My dad told me that when he was about 16, he and his friends broke into the school at night.  As soon as they set foot in the school they all got chills up their spines and heard screams from little children. I even get chills from driving by it.


2 thoughts on “Collinwood School Fire

  1. The old Memorial Elementary school is gone for several years now. The new school is up and very nice. The gardens are still there. I went to and lived across the street from Memorial Elementary which was the old Collinwood school. Yes at night if you stood in the parking lot and faced the school you could hears kids screaming. Not anymore

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