Class, Mobility and Ethnicity

Charting data about victims of the fire provides a different kind of visualization than our animated movie.  On their own, the diagrams below say nothing about the emotional devastation inflicted on families, how newspapers presented and commercialized the fire, or the web of ignorance and good intentions that led to the building of the Lake View School.  The charts do, however, quantify how thoroughly recent arrivals dominated Collinwood’s population.  About eighty-five percent of families who lost children in the fire had moved to the town between 1900 and 1908.  Reshaping and expanding the population, new arrivals came from downtown Cleveland, from nearby and more distant states, and very often from Europe.      

Parents moved to Collinwood for work in the town’s fast-growing industries.   The precise percentages in each category above should be seen as estimates.  When the specific place of employment goes unmentioned in the records, one can’t know for certain whether a “machinist” worked in the railroad shops or a factory, though surely he worked in one or the other. Similarly, both the railroad and the construction business employed carpenters.  Two of Collinwood’s largest manufacturers–the Kuhlman Car Company (a maker of streetcars) and Browning Engineering  (railroad cranes)–also employed many people in railroad-related jobs. In our diagram, we only included those specified as railroad workers in that category, but more than fifty percent of families who lost children in Collinwood probably had fathers working for the railroad or in jobs very closely related to it.      

While unmarried girls and women older than fifteen frequently worked outside the home, married mothers seldom did.  Much more often they took up the hard labor of keeping house and caring for sometimes large families.  In late 1907, for example, Antonia Morela brought her three children from Slovenia to join her husband, George, who had come to Collinwood before the rest of his family. Jerca, their youngest child, eight years old, died in the fire less than six months later.  In 1909, Antonia gave birth to another daughter, Anna.  By 1910, perhaps earlier, she managed a boarding house to add to the family’s income. In her small home, Antonia tended to her family of five and eight Slovenian boarders.  George, the father and husband, worked as a blacksmith’s assistant, almost certainly at the Railroad shops or in a nearby factory.  

About two-thirds of children who died in the fire lived in immigrant families.  Some of the families had lived in Collinwood for more than a decade, but most had arrived much more recently, not knowing they were moving toward their children’s death.  Government documents record the Glassmeier family’s relocations and hint at the emotional costs of the fire.  Henry Glassmeir came to the US from Germany at the age of eight, in 1881.  In 1896, in Newark, Ohio, twenty-two-year-old Henry married fifteen-year-old Cora Chester, an Ohio native.  Cora was well into pregnancy at the time of the marriage.  Their only child, Katherine, was born four months later. By 1900 the Glassmeiers had moved to Mill Township, Ohio, where Henry worked for the railroad.  In 1908, only a month before the fire, the Glassmeirs found their way to Collinwood.  Henry, from a family that included other railroad workers, took a job as a boilermaker.  These records suggest a family shaped by the demands of an extremely youthful pregnancy, following employment where they needed to.  But the records don’t see deeply into the emotional life and subjective experience of a young married couple.  We can’t connect with any certainty the dots of the Glassmeiers’ relocations to their passions and sorrows by searching rows and columns in census forms and city directories.     We can say, though, that in October of 1908, seven months after the death of twelve-year-old Katherine at the Lake View school, Henry and Cora Glassmeier divorced. 

Eastern Europeans and Germans dominated trans-Atlantic migration to Collinwood near the turn of the twentieth century.  Among immigrant families who lost children in the fire, more than 75% had at least one parent born in Germany or Eastern Europe.   A family’s national and ethnic origin correlated with likely job opportunities. Native speakers of English from Canada, Ireland, and England appear less often as mere “laborers” in  the census data.  They more often held skilled or semi-skilled positions.  Eastern European immigrants, on the other hand, were most likely to have the least desirable jobs with backbreaking work, very little security, and lower pay.  The pattern wasn’t absolute, of course, and work experience and length of time in the United States played a role in determining employment prospects.

 Judging from the ethnic origins of families who lost children in Collinwood, immigration to the town shifted dramatically in the decade before the fire.  Where children from German and Slovenian immigrant families made up a somewhat close to equal share of victims in the disaster, children born abroad who died in the Collinwood Fire were overwhelmingly from Eastern Europe.  This was most likely because so many of the first-generation immigrants in the school came from that region.  These children may have found communication with teachers at a moment of crisis more difficult than those who had lived longer in the United States, leading to an elevated mortality rate among the foreign born.  However, without knowing considerably more about the immigration history of all of the children in the building and which classrooms they occupied, one can’t formulate definitive ideas about disproportionate deaths among ethnic groups.

  • Victims List

  • Mapping Mortality

  • Migration & Social Class

  • Sources