Collinwood Fire Introduction

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The Collinwood Fire, 1908 is a multi-media platform for nonfiction storytelling about the Lake View School fire in Collinwood, Ohio. On March 4, 1908, flames tore through the building, trapping many of the roughly 370 people in it. The heat and collapse of the building left some bodies unidentifiable, but officials counted 172 children, two teachers, and one rescuer dead. In the following week, Collinwood, a suburb quotation-marks-gray-3-webThe Collinwood fire had no perfectly stable meaning for those who read about it or watched in agony as the building crumbled and children died before them.quotation-marks-gray-closing-3 adjacent to Cleveland, buried its children.  Some crucial circumstances of the tragedy were almost instantly knowable: the masonry exterior of the building acted as a chimney, sucking flame upward as the wooden interior burned; the school had only two exits and fire quickly blocked one of them; children rushed toward the other door, climbing over one another, finally packing the space so tightly that no one could get out; Collinwood’s horse-drawn fire equipment and volunteer fire department were woefully ill-equipped to fight the roaring blaze; in less than an hour, the three floors and the roof of the Lake View School collapsed into the basement, leaving only the ruined brick exterior and killing anyone who might still have been alive camera image link

This skeleton of understanding left enormous gaps in knowledge, and a welter of stories and explanations rushed to fill the void. How, exactly, did the fire start and who was to blame? Why did some children escape while others did not? Why were only two of ten adults in the building killed while almost fifty percent of children died? What larger forces—metaphysical, political, and economic—brought this tragedy to Collinwood in particular, when school buildings stood in every town? Answers to such questions involve matters of truth but can hardly be said to be simply true or false. They hint, instead, at a search for meaning, an effort to impose order and security on the experience of devastating calamity.

The Collinwood Fire, 1908 begins with an animated movie centered on the fire and its surrounding events.  The film tries to capture the griminess and grandeur of the region as it grew into a commercial and industrial center.  It also highlights the essential role of early-twentieth-century forms of mass media in shaping  people’s understanding of the tragedy.   Reporters flocked to collinwood fire william bullock portrait advertisement The Bakersfield Californian, Dec 3, 1909.the scene and editors splashed sensationalist headlines across the front pages of newspapers.  William Bullock, a twenty-four-year-old filmmaker, rushed to the fire.  He owned Cleveland’s first movie theater, The American, on Superior Avenue in the heart of the city’s entertainment district.  Bullock plastered publicity outside his theater, took out ads for his moving pictures of the horror, and screened his footage for captivated crowds who lined up outside his footnote link for collinwood fire  In 1908, the Collinwood fire became a media event. Our animation is a scholarly treatment of historical sources, but it also deliberately reproduces in its form and style the sensationalist and quasi-fictional media coverage at the turn of the twentieth century.

Other sections of the website  tell additional visual and written stories about the fire and its context, often seeking to be more suggestive than definitive. These entries capture a more granular, ground-level portrait of life in Collinwood, the social fractures in a once intimate village as it came to be dominated by the railroad and booming industrial growth.  They also explore the media environment of 1908, the culture ofcollinwood fire doorway illustration deaths head doorway-cropped-web
Cleveland Leader, Mar 6, 1908. A ghostly death’s head hovers in the doorway and school supplies lie on the steps.
Cleveland’s entertainment district where Bullock rushed to screen his exclusive footage, and the changing role of schools in an age of mass immigration and industrialization.  At times these pages present alternative story lines to those in our animation.  At others, they seek to evoke the mood of the city or the feelings of individuals living through the fire and its aftermath.  We have come to think of them as something like historical haiku made up of illustrations, photographs, video, and three to five paragraphs.

The Collinwood fire inflicted unspeakable pain and profound loss.  But it also had no perfectly stable meaning or coherence for those who read about it or watched in agony as the building crumbled maps-of-cuyahoga-county-outside-of-cleveland-1903-highlighted-with-arrowsCollinwood was a short commuter ride from downtown Cleveland. In this 1903 map, Glenville stands between the two but was annexed by Cleveland in 1905. At the time of the fire, Collinwood and Cleveland shared a border. Maps of Cuyahoga County Outside of Cleveland, 1903, detail. CPL.and children died before them.  The disaster’s impact depended on one’s angle of vision, proximity to loss, and exposure to media.  The tragedy entered into the lives of different groups and individuals in different ways.  In the end, those most damaged had only the struggle to come to terms with the brutal reality they inhabited.  For those who survived and bore witness, the tragedy had no clear and tidy closure.  Our effort has been  to recover both the instability of the fire as a media event and the aching sorrow inflicted on a town in historical transition.

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