In 1906, Mabel Neal, a high school senior, fretted in the local paper about the explosive growth of her town. “We live,” she observed, “in what is called a railroad town. People are coming all Collinwood was larger and more volatile, ugly and more littered, filled with the unfamiliar faces of transient workers.the time and houses are being built as fast as they can be.” Empty lots had become “dumping places for tin cans.” Collinwood had few remaining trees and had recently cut down “the most beautiful [one] in the business section of the town.” School children had played happily around it for generations, Neal noted. Destroying the landmark was the devastation of a legacy.
Despite the upheaval, Neal held out hope for the future of Collinwood. She proposed a variety of “improvements for the village” to make it more cvilized and humane: the construction of green spaces, a YMCA, an auditorium, a more stately town hall, and, most urgently, improved school buildings. “When schools have to be made in the basements,” said Neal, speaking from her own experience, “It is certainly clear that we need [a new] one.” The county board of health and the editor of CC Feb 2, 1906.the paper agreed. Shortly after Neal’s essay, a health inspector ordered classes out of the basement, citing poor light, dampness, and a lack of fresh air. In an editorial urging voters to approve a budget for the building of better schools, the Citizen reported that in addition to the subterranean classrooms condemned by the health department, thirty-five six-to-eight year olds attended classes all day in a dark, unventilated store room. An “OPEN DITCH reeking with filth” ran through their playground. Sometimes children tripped and fell in. A local physician attributed “nearly every case of diphtheria during the recent epidemic” to this sewage. In a town so prosperous, wondered the newspaper, wasn’t protecting the health of children during school hours worth a small increase in taxes?
Overburdened infrastructure was only one source of tension in the fast-growing railroad town. Changing demographics created many more. Southern and Eastern European immigrants CC Jan 26, 1906. WRHS.moved to Collinwood in search of work, raising fear and suspicion in longer-term residents. “Greiner Shooting Affray,” reads a headline on the same page as Mabel Neal’s plea for civilizing her town. Native-born whites and longer-established immigrants routinely used “Greiner” for Slovenian (and sometimes other Eastern European) immigrants. Outside a saloon at 1:35 am, after an “all night carousal,” a drunken dispute between Martin Crevic and Louis Costic ended in gunfire, sending one of them to the hospital and the other to the town jail. The Collinwood Citizen believed that the heritage of the combatants had everything to do with their drunken violence.
Though parts of Collinwood’s transformation dismayed Mabel Neal, the local paper’s editor, and many others, almost no one wanted the railroad or factories to leave town. Neal’s father worked a white-collar job tracking inventory for the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern. The newspaper knew that the railroad powered the town’s growth. Collinwood was larger and more volatile, ugly and more littered, filled with the unfamiliar faces of transient workers. Prosperity, it turned out, brought costs and troubles, but those were the rough and necessary burdens of progress. Such problems only needed to be properly managed to ensure health and happiness amidst the clouds of smoke and rumble of trains.
A few weeks after publishing her essay, Mabel Neal got her wish on the school budget.
Pushed by the threat of state intervention and worries about the health of their children, Collinwood voters in 1906 approved funds for the improvement of schools. Well-respected Cleveland firms designed a new high school from the ground up and doubled the number of classrooms in Lake View Elementary. They added no new exits. After two more years of booming migration to Collinwood, students and teachers again found themselves packed into overcrowded spaces and used the third-floor auditorium for classes.
On the day of the fire, almost four hundred people occupied a three-story building with wooden stairways and only two doors to the outside. One would be blocked by fire, the other by a crush of children’s bodies as they struggled to escape the smoke and heat coming up behind them. “Is the health of the schoolchildren to be sacrificed to further petty political feeling or the saving of a matter of thirty cents on each one hundred dollars of taxable property?” asked the Collinwood Citizen in 1906. One bitter sorrow of the town’s tragedy must have been that efforts to shelter children from the worst depredations of industrial transformation built instead a nightmare charnel house with no way out.