Hitherto, our College has been singularly fortunate in escaping damage by fire. As is the case in France and Germany, where fires are equally rare, the complete occupation of most of our buildings by tenants who are active in suppressing the first outbreak of flame is a strong protection against serious injury. That this fire, breaking out as it did in the middle of the day, was so destructive, can only be attributed to its origin in a room unused by day, and to the misfortune attending the first well-meant efforts of the fire department.
The first fire which occurred in any of the College buildings was probably that by which Harvard Hall was destroyed, including the valuable College library, - a loss which has never been fully replaced. January, 1764, on account of the prevalence of small-pox in Boston, the General Court removed their sessions to Harvard Hall, and the fire kept up for their benefit in the library is supposed to have penetrated to a beam beneath the hearth. In the middle of a very tempestuous night, that of January 24, 1764, the fire broke out, and as it was vacation, and but two or three persons were left in that part of Massachusetts. Hall most distant from Harvard, the flames when discovered were beyond control. Massachusetts, Stoughton, and the then new Hollis were all in great danger; but the town engine came, "the gentlemen of the General Court, among them his Excellency the Governor, were very active," and the fire was confined to Harvard. But that was gone; its library, the books of John Harvard and the long line of benefactors succeeding him, the apparatus of Hollis, the books and curiosities, - all were lost. But so far as a new building or new collections could replace the old, they came. The General Court resolved unanimously to rebuild the Hall at the expense of the Province, and furthermore voted appropriations for the benefit of students who had suffered by the fire, and for the purchase of a "water-engine" for the College. Subscriptions to a much greater amount soon poured in. The Corporation and the Overseers, the clergy and the magistrates, towns, societies, and benefactors, both in America and Great Britain, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Trustees of the British Museum, the king's printer at Edinburgh, united in their contributions of money, books, apparatus, and furniture; one Englishman sending "two curious Egyptian mummies for the Museum."*
This fire was both the first and last which has done any severe injury to the College buildings. An account of it, written by Dorothy Dudley, may be found in the Library. An incipient conflagration occurring in Thayer several months ago was nipped in the bud by the prompt action of a student; and it was directly after this that the Faculty took the well-intended but seemingly fruitless measure of placing a fire-extinguisher in every proctor's room. So long as there are rooms which cannot be entered without the aid of a battering-ram and a policeman, so long will there necessarily be danger from fire. In conclusion, we note the curious coincidence that the destruction of Harvard took place at almost the same date, one hundred and twelve years ago.
*Harvard Book, Vol. I. p. 41.