Officials Cool to Harvard Fires But Blazes Ignite Student Spirit

The cry of "Fire!" has always been an irrestable invitation for students to stop whatever they are doing and gather at the scene. Throughout its history the University has had its share of misfortune due to fires, which concern University Hall not only because of the losses incurred but because of students' antics during the blazes.

One of the first troubles to arise from the fascination that College students have for flames and firefighting occurred during the controversial term of President Increase Mather in the late 1600's. An avid theologian, he burned a book on New England witchcraft at a public ceremony in the College Yard. Thus, it was a College President who started the custom of mass conflagrations in the Yard.

Thereafter students delighted in the fad and were infinitely amused by tutors who tried to extinguish the blazes. The students added more excitement to the whole business by selecting the College Pump-sole source of water in the Yard-as the place for the fires.

Seventeenth Century Firemen

Seventeenth century students were not satisfied with setting fires but soon took to fighting them. They organized a volunteer fire department and raced through town on joy rides whether or not there was a fire and whether or not the townsfolk wanted them to extinguish it. The students were justified in their stimulation, though: restrictions that held them in the Yard were lifted whenever the word "Fire!" was heard. One historian claims that the young men also looked forward after fire-fighting to relieving their parched throats with firewater at the local pub.

Discovering that all of this was great fun, the College fire department soon acquired its own engine, which was tended regularly by students. Once, to keep it in shape, the students set an old house on fire. Because the apparatus was slightly decrepit the boys nearly reached the scene after the neighbors had succeeded in halting the blaze. Undaunted, the students pumped water on the neighbors, who had intruded upon the boys' prerogative. The real compensation for fighting even this blaze was a steak dinner at the Porter House.

There is little wonder that the Faculty devoted part of its June meeting in 1826 to the subject of fires and issued two edicts that "no student be allowed to go to Boston on any alarm of fire" and that "no student be permitted to assist in moving any fire engine to any fire beyond the limit of this village."

Bonfires either within the College Fence or elsewhere still annoyed Faculty and Presidents. Jared Sparks issued the infamous Laws of 1848, which included the edict that, "Any student crying fire, sounding an alarm, leaving their rooms, shouting or clapping from a window, going to the fire, or being seen at it, going into the College Yard, or assembling on account of such bonfire, shall be deemed aiding and abetting such disorder, and punished accordingly."

Fires, needless to say, were not just a source of amusement for students and a bother to Administration. Some of the blazes in the University's history have seriously damaged or threatened property and cost dearly.

Harvard Hall in 1764

The most famous blaze of the University's history broke out during a period when most of the College students were away. This Fire affected the history of Harvard as much as any before or since: all of John Harvard's library, save one book, was lost. In the middle of the night of Jan.24, 1764, Harvard Hall burned to the ground. The Massachusetts Great and General Court, driven out of Boston by a small pox epidemic, was occupying the halls of Harvard for its mid-winter sessions. Apparently one member piled open fire wood to high and it eventually caught fire.

Flames tore from the hearth to the library to the Apparatus Chamber and in minutes the whole building was a heap of ruins. The Massachusetts Gazette of Feb. 2 reported that Stoughton and Massachusetts Halls were in great danger as the wind drove cinders on the roofs of both buildings. Also the "new and beautiful" Hollis Hall dedicated just days earlier, narrowly escaped although it was windward. The Gazette called the blaze "the most ruinous the College ever met since its foundation."

The villagers and a handful of students managed to contain the fire, but the building was a complete loss. Even the Governor of the Commonwealth and his Legislature helped out in fetching water after the College pumps became useless in the bitter cold.

Understandably upset over the disaster, Governor Bernard induced the Legislature to vote funds to rebuild Harvard Hall, to buy a fire engine for the College and to aid students who lost books and furniture. Donations of money and books were sent from all over the Colonies-and even from the Mother Country. Two years later Harvard Hall was reconstructed at a cost of $23,000.

President Charles W. Eliot recalled after his resignation some of the fires throughout the University's history. One of them involved a French instructor who used to teach in the University Hall basement classroom in the 1858-9 term. He had a touchy habit of listing his agenda for the day on the blackboard and hiding it with a curtain so as not to distract his young men in class. Then he would whip the curtain back dramatically and pompously at the right time in the recitation period.