Fire in Old Chambers – Primary Sources
A stunning, indeed staggering blow squarely in the face was received by the College in the burning on the morning of November 28th of Chambers building, the pride and glory of the campus, providing a home in its dormitory wings for 133 students and ROTC headquarters, and containing in its central section five classrooms, Geological and Mineralogical museums, department of the old Union Library, Physical Laboratories, and the large Commencement Auditorium Hall. The building, an immense one, and most imposing in its three-story height, with cupola still more commanding in elevation, and entrance adorned with four Dorian pillars which were the admiration of visitors to the campus, was completed in 1859 at a cost of nearly $90,000. This money was a part of the quarter of a million dollars given by Maxwell Chambers to Davidson College, and owing to the ravages of and the losses entailed by the Civil War, was the only fraction of this princely gift that the College was still reaping the benefits of when the destructive fire swept it away also. Its appraised value under present conditions was not less than $250,000. Sentiment and affection and mathematical figures alike combined to make one see in the building a structure of almost inestimable value, the loss of which constitutes a crisis in the life of Davidson College.
The fire was not discovered until well under way, and when awakened and frightened students rushed from their rooms in the early morning hour to fight the raging flames, they did not discover for some time that a fire above them was burning more fiercely than that on the third floor against which their attack was being made. But at no time after the alarm was given was there any chance to bring the fire under control. Fortunately, no lives were lost, and most of the students saved their clothing and other effects, though there was some exception to this. A few men lost as much as $200 each. One member of the senior class, Harold McKeithen, jumped from the third story but landed in mud and water and thus escaped serious hurt. A few other student received painful but not dangerous burns in their fight against the flames or in their zeal of saving articles of various kinds.
As the entire student body and faculty and citizens of the town stood and watched the great building burn and saw that only the high brick walls, and indeed these only in part, together with the four great sentinel pillars would be left standing, despondency and distress, not to say despair, were written on every face and showed in every voice that spoke. Happily, the mood was a fleeting one, for before the flames had died down, President Martin, as the bugle, replacing the destroyed bell, sounded its notes, called the students in assembly around the campus well and in impassioned tones and ringing words challenged each man to hear the call of the college in its hour of distress, to rally around its standard on this day of misfortune and disaster, to stand by the colors, to stick his post, to submit as cheerfully as could be to necessary inconvenience and to resolve that despite any and all obstacles this present year should be made the best that Davidson had ever known. The response was immediate, and the note of optimism sounded here was repeated in a grand rally held a few hours later in Shearer Hall. With the coming on Tuesday, students, now crowded together in the remaining dormitories or placed in homes in the village, and professors, making joint use of old or improvised classrooms, among them the Literary Society Halls, took up their work and recitations were resumed on regular schedule just as if no fire had occurred the preceding day.
Fortunately, there was about $100,000 insurance on Chambers and its apparatus and equipment of various kinds. The Executive Committee of the College met at Davidson a few days after the fire and decided upon the following order:
1) To let the contract at once for the building of a large dormitory that will house 115 students, plans for which building have been on hand for a year or more. (This dormitory will be ready for use in September, 1922).
2) To prepare plans for and to erect at once an enlarged heating plant.
3) To employ expert advice with reference to the rebuilding or replacement of Chambers.
4) To start a campaign at the earliest possible date for razing funds for the above purposes and for the addition of other buildings and for an increase in the endowment to a point where it will be sufficient adequately to care for the number of students now on the grounds.
The authorities are already at work preparing plans for doing these things. Contractors are preparing bids for the new dormitory and we are seeking counsel on all the other matters. A temporary building designed especially for Physical Laboratory and seven class rooms is ordered to be ready February first. This will splendidly serve until a New Chambers is built.
This day after it got started was just like most after speaking Mondays except for one thing. I am a refugee and I certainly feel for the Belgians. We haven’t any more Chambers building than there is in Cornelius and I haven’t got any underwear, shirts, razor, socks, stationary, hats, caps, belts, books, very few bed cloths, pajamas, ties, comb, brush or overcoat and I just saved $35 from ROTC and bought a new one. I haven’t a toothbrush and several other things, but I have all my suits, my best pair of shoes and a pair of socks, a suit of pajamas, a bath robe, trunk. suitcase. watch, pen, pillow case, and suspenders. But at that I fared about as well or better than anyone else on third floor north. We had fifteen minutes after any one knew about the fire till our floor was cut off and I think that we are lucky that no one was badly hurt.
I have written all this under the assumption that you know Chambers burned this morning at five o’clock. Most of the walls and pillars are standing but is certainly ghastly looking with the red glow from the fire still showing. I am going to stay with Miss Sally I think. I never saw such a magnificent, awe-inspiring, heart-rending sigh in all my life and never hope to again. People saw the glow from the fire in Concord, Charlotte, and Winston-Salem.