A fateful fire

In the spring of 1910, fire destroyed the Main Building on TCU’s Waco campus, forcing the still-fledgling institution once again to rethink its future and set it on a course to Fort Worth.

A fateful fire

It was a Tuesday evening and the 8 p.m. study hour had just begun when two boys discovered the fire on the fourth floor of the Main Building.

A fateful fire

In the spring of 1910, fire destroyed the Main Building on TCU’s Waco campus, forcing the still-fledgling institution once again to rethink its future and set it on a course to Fort Worth.


Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series called “From Ruins to Rebirth,” which looks back at TCU’s 1910 move from Waco to Fort Worth. 

Nearly 100 years has passed, but no one knows exactly what started it.

Was it defective electrical wiring, as most on the TCU campus believed? Or could it have begun from sparks from the heating and lighting plant’s smokestack, a theory advanced by the university’s engineer, Andy Elam, who vouched for the wiring as “modern in every respect.”

It’s a mystery likely never to be resolved.

History only records that two boys — fourth-floor roommates Roy Tomlinson and Dibrell “Carl” Melton — first discovered the fire in the ceiling in the northwest wing of the campus’s Main Building a little after 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 22, 1910.

Supper was finished and students were returning from last-minute excursions to the post office and drug store, ready for the study hour to begin. If there was any blessing in the fire, it was that the timing made it easy for the boys to alert their classmates and, for a time, bravely fight the flames.

But with only buckets of water from the sink to extinguish it, their struggle was in vain. Within minutes, the roof was ablaze and the boys fled for safety.

The boys on the upper floors were fortunate to escape without harm, but their classmates on lower floors had time to save furniture and books from their rooms before it became too dangerous. The Skiff reported that some students threw clothing, books and other items out the windows while others dragged mattresses and their enormous trunks down the stairs, working “faithfully in helping one another and caring for one another.”

It was soon evident that nothing more could be done at the Main Building, so the boys rushed to the Girls’ Home and helped the ladies move their property outside in case the fire spread.

PhotoThe clamor and rush of those minutes caused both confusion and excitement. One student — a Miss Leta Walker of Forreston — was hit on the head by a trunk falling down the stairs. Other students suffered only minor scrapes and bruises. Tomlinson, who discovered the fire, was said to have exerted himself to exhaustion and was carried two blocks to the pastor’s home.

“Practically all of them lost their personal effects,” reported the Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune. “It took the flames but a few minutes to eat their way back to the lower floors, and within two hours after the fire was discovered, naught remained of the magnificent building but the charred and blackened walls, part of which had fallen with a thunderous crash during the conflagration.”

But they were all safe. “Not a serious fatality occurred among the many students,” the Skiff would write.

The campus, however, was a mess, strewn with clothing, books, pictures and other belongings amid the smoke and ash. With nothing else to do, the 367 students of Texas Christian University inched back to a far enough distance, sat on their trunks and watched.

Others came to watch too. The Tribune reported that the blaze was visible by farmers miles away and hundreds of people eventually arrived at the scene. About 10 p.m., the roof fell in, shooting the fire as high as 200 feet. Meanwhile, firefighters, who arrived late, plied the hose on the Girls’ Home and Townsend Hall, which housed the music program and the dining hall. However, in the zeal to preserve the buildings, they nearly flooded the ground floors, adding considerable damage to an otherwise undamaged building.

* * *


Thought to be fireproof with its drafty stairwells and thick brick walls, the Main Building was among the largest school structures in the southwest, if not the largest. (Even Waco neighbor Baylor University, the state’s oldest college, had no building its equal.)

Its lower walls were 18 to 24 inches thick. Even walls between rooms were brick, but the floors, stairs and roof were all wood. It contained classroom space for the business college, two laboratories, the library and university business office — all on the first floor. The chapel, classrooms, offices and a few faculty apartments took up the second floor. In the levels above, male students lived in dormitory rooms and held literary society gatherings in well-appointed parlors. The top floor also had some faculty apartments.

PhotoAll of these sustained heavy losses. Nearly all of the library’s 6,000 cataloged volumes were destroyed. One student did manage to rescue about 50 books, and in the months following, publishers and Waco booksellers donated replacements.

But what could not be brought back, most regrettably, was the unfinished 1910 Horned Frog yearbook, which was nearly three-quarters completed. While students vowed to publish the annual eventually, it never happened, although the little work that had been submitted to the printer before the fire was added into the 1911 book.

The chemical and physical laboratories, worth $4,000, also were completely consumed. Luckily, all the records of the business office, except for a large supply of textbooks and the Board of Trustees’ minutes from 1902-1910, were saved. Even the old Student Enrollment book from 1889-1902 was preserved.

The business college was not as fortunate, losing its textbooks, typewriters, equipment and classroom furniture in the fire. The painting and drawing department found nearly all its works among the casualties, including some rare pieces owned by department principal Mrs. E.R. Cockrell.

The loss included a pipe organ, a grand piano and nine upright pianos. More than 175 boys were displaced. The damage was determined to exceed $150,000, but the building only was insured for $29,000, which included $4,000 for equipment. The money would make only a paltry contribution toward the debts owed against the property.

But a spirit of perseverance, which had come to characterize the school, remained strong. TCU had moved twice in 37 years, endured enrollment fluctuations and struggled to retain esteemed faculty on meager salaries. It had weathered numerous financial storms and would endure this one. [For more on TCU’s pre-fire history, read The Early Days.]

Even as the walls were burning, TCU President Clinton Lockhart and Business Manager James F. Anderson announced that “the work of the university would go right on without interruption,” according to reports.

The men were right. Before the embers died that night, arrangements were made for housing for the boys in neighboring homes. Sympathetic friends of the institution started a voluntary collection, and within a few minutes, several hundred dollars in cash had been donated.

Chapel was held the next day in the dining hall, and classes resumed the day after that. Despite losing three-fourths of its copy Tuesday night, the Skiff published a full edition on Saturday, March 26, 1910, with a lead headline: “Main Building Burns.” In his page two column, editor-in-chief G.W. Stevenson asked that readers “kindly bear with the editor in this issue for the many blunders and hastily written articles. We have been forced to work overtime under the stress of fatigue and sorrow.” [Read Stevenson’s complete column.]

Despite the makeshift conditions, TCU would finish the academic year without further turmoil, even matriculating 15 students at June commencement.

The aftermath

The day after the fire was devoted to planning classes and preparing lecture rooms. Four faculty members, including President Lockhart, “took their classes into their homes and provided everything,” the Skiff reported. Those living on the fourth floor of Townsend Hall moved out, and rooms on all floors were used for teaching lessons. Several first-floor residents of the Girls’ Home also gave up their lodging for classroom space.

When the weather was nice, faculty taught outside at the athletics grandstand and under shade trees.

Also on that first day’s agenda was finding permanent lodging for the boys. Amazingly, not one of the students — male or female — left for home to stay.

In fact, many of the boys relished the opportunity for fraternizing and communal living.
Photo“The pluck, originality and enterprise of the students is shown in no better way than the manner in which they have gone about to provide themselves with new homes,” the Skiff reported. “Many of them did not wait for the faculty or management to make arrangements for them but went at once into active plans.”

Eleven boys found the Morrison house vacant and suitable to rent, adding furnishings and christening it “The White House.” The Skiff referred to the arrangement as “clubbing in.”

“They are now comfortably lodged in their new quarters and live like aristocrats,” the student paper wrote. “They have two freshmen, ‘Little Steve’ and ‘Little Mac,’ who do all the house cleaning, and one ‘senior prep’ and one sophomore to run errands and bring water. The rest of them are juniors — which speaks for itself.”

The Skiff had firsthand knowledge of the conditions as it set up its headquarters at that location, “a fact alone sufficient to give the place notoriety,” the paper boasted.

Another group of 16 boys secured a building recently constructed by the school’s business manager and biology professor James F. Anderson, who provided furniture and turned it over to the boys. They dubbed it “The Anderson Flats.”

PhotoThe baseball team took up residence at “The Mills Flats” to keep the squad together and remain close to the campus.

Meanwhile, the day also brought much discussion about what TCU would do next. Members of the Board of Trustees were notified of the fire by wire, and several of them came to Waco to give aid and counsel.

Local merchants and concerned citizens held a rally the morning after the fire in the dining facility of Townsend Hall. Members of the Waco Business Men’s Club and the Young Men’s Business League met with university Trustees and faculty members to express sympathy for the disaster and promise aid for reconstruction.

The meeting went on through most of the morning as dozens of men stood to praise the university for its value to the city and assure school officials that it would receive generous support. “They talked of plans and hopes which made every heart beat high and happy for TCU, even amid the smoke and ruins,” the Skiff wrote.

Finally, after considerable discussion, H.H. Shear, president of the Business Men’s Club, moved to appoint a special committee to canvass the citizenry and make a bid to help replace the burned building.

That afternoon, a second gathering took place. Earl Gough, president of the student body, called a students-only meeting in the gymnasium.

The Skiff described the scene: “The students all showed the proper spirit and all the speakers among the students were unanimous in their appeals for everybody to stay and abide by their school. [Endowment Secretary Chalmers] McPherson and [Trustee Charles W.] Gibson came into the meeting and thanked the student body for their loyalty and college spirit, promising that if the students would stay with them, the trustees would stay with the students.”

Also that afternoon, the Waco business committee returned to meet with several members of the executive committee of the TCU Board of Trustees. The Waco group wanted another gathering that evening in the school auditorium for the entire city to entreat the university. Waco wanted to be sure that TCU knew how the city felt about it.

With Baylor and TCU, two of the more prominent universities in the region, Waco fancied itself as the education center of the state, calling itself “The Athens of Texas.” Austin had the Capitol. Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston were all bigger and growing faster. San Antonio was more historical.

Waco needed TCU to stay.

The courtship begins

The night following the fire, a crowd of 1,000 — the Skiff said 2,000 — assembled in what would become a citywide pep rally. The Baylor band arrived to provide festive and inspiring music and featured speakers deplored TCU’s misfortune and applauded the school’s handling of the emergency.

J.C. Lattimore, superintendent of the Waco public schools, called attention to TCU’s commercial value to Waco, but declared its greatest work consisted of producing upstanding men and women. He gave assurances that the people of Waco appreciated the presence of the university and believed the citizens would respond.

PhotoCounty Judge T. L. McCullough praised the noble aim of the school. The university was bound to continue, he said, and Waco could not afford to neglect her.

Tribune editor George C. Robinson asserted that the burning of the building could not destroy TCU. It was an accident indeed, but the school would grow in usefulness with its two unharmed buildings providing the surest foundation to move onward.

The rally culminated in Robinson announcing, on behalf of the business committee, that Waco would raise $50,000 toward reconstructing the Main Building, but suggesting a much greater sum could be realized. Others in the crowd individually pledged money by the hundreds.

President Lockhart and Thomas E. Tomlinson, president of the Board of Trustees, spoke appreciative words about Waco and rebuilding there but urged patience. “They also say that they desire and it is their duty to do what may seem to them in the best interest of the school and its future,” the Tribune wrote.

No decisions would be made, Tomlinson said, until a full meeting of the Board, which would come a week later.

The wooing continued, however, with Baylor offering unique support. Its faculty adopted a resolution to make its laboratories and library available to TCU students until a new building was prepared. The Bears baseball team proposed it play the TCU squad in two exhibition games with the receipts helping the Frogs replace their old equipment, which burned in the fire.

By the weekend, a Tribune editorial continued the cries of goodwill and lauded the city’s response as “most generous,” while acknowledging the burden it would put on Waco, which had allocated $100,000 to public works project just two months prior.

“Here is the home of TCU. It is part and parcel of Waco. We have stood by it in all its needs and trials and we are ready to do so now. We are ready to share the burden of the loss, of the re-creation, with you. … TCU knocked at Waco’s door nearly 20 years agone, seeking a new home. … and to this day, this city has taken pride and loving interest in the welfare and progress of the institution. We be near of kin, indeed, and the bond of unity, affection and appreciation is strong. TCU is here, should stay here, and on no account … would Waco think of letting it go elsewhere. It is a jewel in the diadem of the Central City and we cannot think of losing it — nor will we do so.”

But Waco had reason to fret. Word quickly spread of the town’s offer of $50,000, and other ambitious cities promptly offered invitations for the school to move. In its edition four days after the fire, the Skiff reported that Fort Worth, Dallas, Sweetwater, McKinney, Gainesville and other cities had expressed interest in attracting TCU to their communities.

With the Skiff perhaps expressing the school’s conscience, Waco seemed to be the sentimental favorite. “The buildings left undamaged are valuable, so also are the grounds, the location is ideal,” the paper wrote. “The teachers, for the most part, own their homes here, and the resident population of North Waco own their homes on account of the school. So it would be harmful to many interests to change the location.”

But the paper also conceded that many interests would figure into the decision. “If Dallas or Fort Worth should offer something like $250,000 bonus, a change of location might be considered,” it wrote.

Fort Worth emerges

The Trustees met the following week and charged three members — Trustee president Tomlinson, past Trustee president T.E. Shirley and Waxahachie banker Charles W. Gibson — with investigating and selecting the best bid. “The promises of Waco were hearty but vague,” Colby Hall would write years later in History of Texas Christian University. “So much so that the Board voted, ‘We much prefer that the people of Waco make us a definite proposition, which we will give due consideration.’ ”

PhotoBy April, Waco sensed it was losing the fight to deeper pockets. Trustees attended the Business Men’s Club meeting to assure them that Waco was still being considered, telling them, “It was not the purpose of the Board to sell the university to the highest bidder. Every town or city would be given a hearing,” the Skiff reported. Tomlinson promised Waco the benefit of the last hearing.

At that last hearing, Waco Mayor James B. Baker and Judge Albert Collins Prendergast recalled the history of TCU’s arrival in Waco 15 years earlier. Baker recounted how his business had sold brick material on credit to the school’s cash-strapped founders.

Prendergast also retold how the city had “stood behind TCU with money and other assistance.” He concluded his remarks by saying that “he did not think TCU, in the face of all this, should invite other towns and cities in to bid against them for the location. He thought that TCU was morally bound to remain in Waco,” according to the Skiff.

Waco increased its bid to $75,000, Colby Hall records, but was only able to raise about $40,000. “McKinney and Gainesville made bids, but these were not large enough to give promise of success,” Hall wrote. “Dallas made a serious effort, despite the fact that it was at the time completing negotiations for the planting of Southern Methodist University there.”

Fort Worth, claiming the home of the Clark Brothers’ original Add-Ran Male and Female Academy, was superior, Tomlinson and Gibson believed. The city offered a plot of 50 acres, $200,000 and assurances of connections to city utilities and a street car line.

Half the money was to come from the Board of Trade and the Christian churches of Fort Worth by July 1, and the rest from the sale of lots through the Fairmount Land Company. Fort Worth would make good on $175,000 of it.

On May 9, the Board of Trustees unanimously accepted Fort Worth’s bid. A large and influential contingent of alumni in Dallas were heartbroken when Tomlinson delivered the news two days later at the Texas Christian Convention.

Waco was disappointed, Hall wrote, but by this time had come to realize the inevitable. The May 11 issue of the Waco Times-Herald carried a three-inch banner headline: “Waco gets the Hebrew University — the establishment of this school somewhat softens the blow of the loss of TCU.” At the bottom of the page, a small article reported “Fort Worth will get Texas Christian University.”

The Hebrew University would never materialize.

Over the summer, the Skiff published photos of the future, albeit temporary, campus downtown and ran stories urging students and their families to visit Fort Worth with TCU administrators their as guides. The paper also became flush with advertisements from Fort Worth, peddling shoes, furniture, pianos, dry goods and more, all mentioning a hearty welcome to town.

PhotoFor Tomlinson and Gibson, the move was wearisome. While Gibson negotiated contracts for temporary housing, Tomlinson worked with city officials on the street car line and plans for the future buildings.

“By July 15, a contract was closed, leasing “the Ingram Flats” at $5,000 for the year,” Hall wrote in History. “This was a series of two-story brick buildings on the corner of Weatherford and Commerce Streets, diagonal from the county courthouse. The Commerce Street building contained classrooms, chapel and music rooms on the first floor, and boys’ rooms on the second. The Weatherford Street side housed the offices, print shop, dining room and Business College on the ground floor and girls’ rooms on the second. On nearby streets were homes for the teachers, one additional home for girls and several for boys.”

The Skiff published its last Waco-based issue in August. In September, the datelines would all read Fort Worth.

The insurance money and the bid money cleared all of TCU’s debts, giving the school a fresh start in Fort Worth. But it had no savings, no endowment and no idea how many students would enroll.

Years later, Hall summarized the ordeal thusly: “An old saw says that three moves are as disastrous as a fire. Counting the first move from Fort Worth to Thorp Spring, the old school had endured both calamities; three moves and a fire! Its mettle was thoroughly tried; it faced the challenge with hopefulness and great expectation, on its return to its original home in Fort Worth. It remained to be seen how the city of cattle fortunes and the big packing houses would take to the exponent of Christian culture.”

The school had a home again and an indomitable spirit for what lie ahead.
About the series:
Part I – Spring 2010: The 1910 Fire at the Waco campus
Part II – Fall 2010: A year in downtown Fort Worth
Part III – Fall 2011: TCU settles into present-day campus

On the Web:
A Fateful Fire
The early days: Before the fire
Skiff editor G.W. Stevenson column after the fire
Funny incidents from the fire, recorded in the 1911 Horned Frog
Waco Tribune-Herald writes about the fire
A Century of Partnership

Clark, Randolph. Reminiscences: Biographical and Historical. Lee Clark, Publisher. 1919.
Hall, Colby. History of Texas Christian University: A College of the Cattle Frontier. Texas Christian University Press. 1947.
The Horned Frog. Annual of Texas Christian University. 1911.
The Skiff, a weekly newspaper of Texas Christian University.  March 26, 1910-August 26, 1910.
Swaim, Joan Hewatt. Walking TCU: A Historical Perspective. Texas Christian University Press. 1992.
Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune. Newspaper. March 26, 1910.
Waco Times-Herald. Newspaper. May 11, 1910.

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