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Facts About the 1917 Williston Fire

  • Williston Hall was erected in 1876 where Clapp Laboratory currently stands. A. Lyman Williston, college treasurer for four years, donated $100,000 for its erection.
  • Williston housed the zoology, botany, geology, physiology, and psychology departments.
  • Williston Hall, in addition to providing students with science facilities, was also used for certain Mount Holyoke traditions. On the steps of Williston, seniors annually held their step exercises at Commencement and transferred their rights and privileges to the junior class.
  • Williston Hall burned in December 22, 1917 during Mount Holyoke's Christmas vacation. There were very few people present on campus.
  • At the time of its destruction, Williston Hall was the oldest building on campus.
  • The loss of the building was estimated to be $85,000-$100,000.
  • The fire destroyed very valuable geologic, zoological, and botanical collections that could only partly be replaced.
  • Much faculty research, manuscripts, lectures, and records were destroyed.
  • Reverend J.P. Nichols of the Congregational Church first noticed the fire from his office window, when he saw flashes of light coming from behind the building. He went to investigate and then realized the fire.
  • The fire was thought to be caused by faulty electrical wiring, but this was never confirmed.
  • The fire was very colorful and caused two big explosions, due to the many chemicals that were stored in the building for science experiments.
  • Firemen from South Hadley, South Hadley Falls, and Holyoke all arrived on the scene. The Holyoke Fire Department arrived with a steam fire engine from their Mt. Tom firehouse.
  • College property that was saved during the Williston fire was valued at $2,000 and stored in Mary Lyon and Porter Hall.
  • On December 24, 1917, Christmas Eve, President Mary Woolley met with the dean, the registrar, the treasurer, and department chairs to discuss how the College would deal with the fire.
  • Insurance was provided for $90,000, but a new building would cost $250,000.
  • The College solicited financial assistance, laboratory equipment, and specimens from alumnae, benefactors, peer institutions, and museums.
  • After the Williston fire, geology classes were held in the library basement, psychology was relocated to the third floor of Skinner Hall, botany was held in the plant-house and the basement of Porter Hall, zoology was held in Assembly Hall, and physiology was held in the basement of Mary Lyon and in Dwight Hall.
  • A temporary science building was built behind Blanchard gymnasium in Fall 1918 and was built with bricks from Williston Hall.
  • Cornelia Clapp Laboratory opened in 1924, after World War I was over.

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This page was created by Lindsay Theile '04 in History 283, Fall Semester 2003 - letheile@mtholyoke.edu