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Luther College
1889 Fire

Source: Decorah Republican May 23, 1889 P 1 C 3, 4, 5, 6


this page was last updated on Thursday, 01 April 2021

Luther College Old Main before 1889 fire


The Fire Fiend in a few hours Destroys the work of a Quarter Century.

And inflicts the most serious Calamity that has ever befallen Decorah.

Serious and possibly Fatal Injuries to Lou and Dell Coleman.

Citizens meet to give Expression of their Sympathy.
The night watchman went on duty Sunday evening shortly after ten o’clock. He very soon discovered smoke pouring out and hovering over the building. A hasty examination discovered that a fire had started in the attic in a mass of ma terial therein stored. The College bell was rung instantly and as violently as possible. The unusual hour and the nervous ringing immediately aroused the inmates of the College and the people of West Decorah. Soon it attracted attention in the city, and the
with unusual vigor. The firemen responded as usual; but when it was known that the fire was at the College the hose companies made no effort to take their carts to the grounds. They went in person, and did all that men could do to assist in the work. Chief Engineer Langland and his assistants, with ex-Chief Gardner, and the foremen of the various companies were on the ground early and did everything in the way of directing, counseling and organizing gangs of men for the different departments of work. The Hook and Ladder truck was hauled over; all the Babcock engines belonging to the department were brought into employment and for more than two hours
The College was deemed fairly well supplied with fire apparatus, and in case of a fire on the ground floor or second or third stories this would have been very efficient. It consisted of an immense cistern, receiving the water from over half the broad roof. To this was attached a strong force pump, on which eight or ten men could “man the brakes.” This throws water to a tank in the top of the building. Pipes there from, with fire plugs on every story, and ample hose, seemed to form an adequate protection. But in the attic and dormitory there was no pressure from the tank, and the fire could be fought only by a bucket brigade. The dense smoke in the confined space drove the workers away from the heart of the fire, while it gathering force steadily, crept along under the roof and at last put the disaster
with any means at command. After more than two hours of desperate but useless exertion the flames broke through the roof at a point a little north of the bell tower; soon another branch of the flames found another exit, and all hope was ended. In another hour the entire roof was burning from end to end, and as the flames lit up the night
During this time students had been collecting their effects, packing trunks, and citizens were crowding into all the rooms to assist in saving all the movable property. This was done so effectually that the loss of personal effects, libraries, cabinets, furniture, etc., was comparatively trivial. When it had become apparent that the building was destined to destruction, organized gangs of workers began removing all windows and doors that could bo taken out in the basement and two lower stories. The saving thus effected was quite large. Although it was clear the structure must burn out,
It was deemed possible that a portion of the north end might be saved after the roof had burned off and access to the fire line secured without serious danger. This fight was kept up till Monday noon, when a northwest wind sprang up and destroyed that hope also. There was this good result, however: the fire burned so slowly that it is hoped the walls of the main building are not so much injured as they would be in a quicker, fiercer, furnace heat. The south wing suffered in this respect, and its walls are worthless. In fact, on Tuesday a portion, on the west side fell in. But as this was built later, and was only tied on to the main building, its falling in no manner weakens the rest.
It was, founded by the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of America, and has been continuously under the control of the Lutheran Churches of this country. The pioneer ministers of this faith came to the United States as missionaries, and they soon saw that the emigration from Norway was pouring in so rapidly that thousands of their countrymen were destined to enter fields where there would be absolute religious destitution of the sort into which Norwegians had been educated at home, unless broad and wide plans were laid for securing a supply. The clergy of tbe Norwegian Lutheran Church is essentially
While the college was not designed to become a Theological Seminary, it was the intent of its founders to make it an institution to rear “educated men who could preach the Word of Life to the rapidly increasing Norwegian population of this country.” Its graduates were expected to take up, later in years, the study of theology. Hence, it is not surprising that out of the 204 graduates, four out of every five are either clergymen. theological students or teachers. The college was first located at a village in Wisconsin, but in year (1862) or less
At first the building now occupied by the St. Cloud Hotel was bought and used. Then the brick building adjoining it on the west was added, and finally the college site in West Decorah was selected and purchased. The erection of the main part of the now burned building was began in 1863-4, and completed in the following year. Turning to the files of the Republican for Oct. 19th, 1865, we find it was dedicated on the 14th of that month with (for the time) imposing ceremonies. The event was of such importance that the clergy of the church gathered here from all parts of the country, and the event was witnessed by thousand of spectators. Twice the building was enlarged, and at the present time—before this fire occurred —it was
a structure occupying a ground space of 170x52 FEET.
The picture at the head of this article is a more than usually accurate representation of the building as it was Sunday evening. Another picture taken Tuesday morning would produce it as a ruin, in every respect except the standing walls. The cost of the college property was over $150,000 The amount of the loss, in value, now, it is impossible to estimate. The cost to restore it to a good condition of usefulness will depend much upon expert testimony ns to the effects of fire upon what was unconsumed. There still remains to the College, its organization, the clientage it has all over the country, as well as the beautiful grounds—the result of twenty-three years of care and decoration, several smaller buildings, besides many conveniences that have cost thousands of dollars, and are as available for a new college as they over were to the old. Beyond doubt
not simply restored but in a better and stronger form than ever The calamity which befell the Congregational Collego at Grinnell, when it was razed to the ground by a cyclone, rises instinctively to mind. The faculty was crushed. But the great hearts of the people behind it sprang to its relief, and by one great wave of sympathy, put the institution in better shape than over before to serve the purposes for which it was dedicated. The people who contributed of their scanty means a quarter of a century ago to build Lutlicr College are richer by ten-fold; their numbers have vastly increased; the hundreds of youth who have come and gone through Its doors are in position to
—to tell it with love in their hearts, and tears in their eyes—to people who can rebuild it as it never has been. As an educational Institution, it occupies a place in the necessities of the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Churches in this country that cannot be left vacant. Already letters and telegrams of sympathy, of promised aid, are pouring in to the burdened and discouraged faculty that will put new life and courage into their hearts. The Synod is now in session, and we doubt not that the largest and most loving work these pastors will engage in will be that of laying plans that will assure the future of the college.
there was nothing to do but to dismiss all the classes except that which will graduate next month. Happily the break comes at a season when the college year is so near ended. The graduates can be cared for in smaller quarters and will finish their course in due form.
On Monday afternoon Mr. Fred Thompson and a student named Steensland, from Madison, "Wis., had a very narrow escape from death. They were on a ladder up at the second story window when some debris fell from the cornice. They both sprang to get away. Mr. Thompson lost his hold on the ladder, and fell, carrying with him Steensland. The former bounded on the ladder, turned a summersault, landed on his feet and run off unharmed. Stcensland fell amid the debris, and had his head cut and face grazed by a falling brick, so that medical service was imperative. But, to the surprise of the alarmed spectators, he too was able to get up and walk away. All the onlookers expected to see one or both mangled or worse.
Amidst the troubles attending the destruction by fire of our college building it was a source of consolation to us to witness the bravely heroic efforts of the fire companies and the citizens of Decorah generally to get control of the fire and save the building; and when this proved impossible, to save what could be saved, and render aid in every manner suggested by generous sympathies for those afflicted. For all of which we take this opportunity to express our heartfelt thanks.

To Mrs. Coleman, whose affliction is the saddest of all, we extend our sincere sympathy.
For the Faculty of Luther College:
Chr. Naeseth.
Gisle Bothne

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this page was last updated on Thursday, 01 April 2021