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The beginning was nearly the END!

 

From the Indiana Gazetteer of 1849

 

This is one of the earliest images that we have of the first building on this site – South Hall as it later came to be known. In fact it is one of the few images that show this building just as it was built. This engraving was prepared for the 1849 Indiana Gazetteer.

In 1838 Wabash was in good shape. We purchased 160 acres, immediately sold 100 of them for a profit and started construction of “The College” as it was the only building on the new campus.  The first three floors housed student rooms; the fourth floor had classrooms, a small chapel and a library. Each floor was divided into three “Divisions” North, Middle and South. The two walls which created the three divisions were built as a unit from the basement to the roof. At the time it was built South Hall was a very large building and much admired. As it was considered to be as nearly fireproof as possible, it was not insured.

Just as it neared completion, tragedy struck. The fire of September 23, 1838 very nearly killed Wabash. Mary Hovey, the wife of founder and early faculty member Edmund O. Hovey, describes the fire in a letter to her brother-in-law Charles White, “The scenes of last Saturday morning can never be blotted from our memory. But the day before our beautiful college building – which cost sixteen thousand dollars – stood as the ornament of our town and pleased the eye of every beholder. The building was not entirely completed, but would have been this fall. Accommodations were already provided for sixty students. The building contained libraries and apparatus valued at six thousand dollars. At half past two on that morning we were awakened by the cry, “The College is on fire!” The flames had then burst through all the windows in the north-end which was unfinished and the whole roof was one sheet of fire. For a moment building library and all were forgotten in the thought Where are the students? We knew some were sleeping in the third and perhaps fourth stories and the fire was rapidly descending the staircases. But – we rejoice to add that the lives of all were saved, though many left all of their worldly goods behind to be consumed by the fire….”

In her wonderfully detailed letter she goes on to say that the fire started on the roof of the north division by the workers finishing the tin roof. It was largely due to the unique construction that most of the damage was limited to the middle and north divisions. The exterior and interior walls held the fire somewhat in check. However, all of the library and the scientific equipment were destroyed.

It was thought at first that this was the end, or in Mary’s words, “For a few hours our feelings were, Wabash College is dead, henceforth it will exist only in memory….But the united voices of our citizens is, it must not die.” Mary was writing this letter the day following a public meeting held between the college and the town. John Steel Thomson a founder and faculty member gave a rousing sermon which inspired the people of Crawfordsville to donate. A letter from nearly twenty years later written by James Thomson tells us that the money given by the town to rebuild Wabash was earmarked for a female academy here in Crawfordsville, which was never built. It is for this outpouring of generosity that President Lew Salter, on the occasion of 150th Anniversary of the College in 1982, penned a thank you to the citizens of Crawfordsville. Look for the plaque on the ground in front of Baxter Hall, Mall side.

The college did rebuild, although for a time classes were held in the “Hanna Building” downtown, seen below on the corner. The Hanna family had very close ties to the early college.

Downtown 1860

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the building which now houses the store Heathcliff, on the NW corner of Main and Washington Streets.  Members of the faculty and the friends of the College took in the students who had lost nearly everything in the fire. It was a tough time for Wabash. The money from Crawfordsville started the repairs, but it was not enough to continue the mission and so Wabash borrowed from the state of Indiana. It was a struggle but by March of 1839 the Trustees reported that the repairs were complete and that the College would be insured for as much as possible!

All best, 
Beth Swift
Archivist
Wabash College