One hundred and thirty years ago today, a fire started in the chemistry lab on the fourth floor of Old Main that consumed the landmark edifice.
“A Smoldering Ruin” read the headline in the Chester Times. A New York Times story with a Chester dateline began this way: “The large and handsome building that stood on a prominence just back of and overlooking this city, known as the Pennsylvania Military Academy, was destroyed by fire this evening between 5 and 9 o’clock.”
The Times story reported that the 143 cadets who represented “nearly every state in the union” were outside doing drills when the fire began. They formed a “bucket gang” to pass water to the flames, but their efforts were futile as the fire spread. Fire engines were delayed by the bad condition of the streets, and a horse drawn wagon from The Hanley Hose Co. became stuck in the mud while trying to fight the blaze. “At 9 o’clock nothing remained but the blackened walls,” the Times reported, adding that most cadets were able to save their “most valuable personal effects.” There were no serious injuries, and losses were estimated at $200,000, part of which was covered by insurance.
Cadets were summoned and given money for their trips home by Col. Theodore Hyatt, PMA’s president. Hyatt soon sought temporary quarters for the school in Ridley Park Hotel, leasing the hotel two miles away that was ready for occupancy on March 8, 1882. The rebuilt “Main Building” was finished by September 1882, just in time for the cadets to move in for the beginning of the 1882-1883 academic year, only seven months after the fire.