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Williston Hall in Flames (1917):
Faculty and Townspeople Struggle to Save It

Williston Hall, Mount Holyoke's first science building, in 1880. Courtesy MHC Archives (6)
Williston Hall after the fire, 1917. Courtesy MHC Archives (7)

On December 22, 1917, while students were on winter vacation and the campus was virtually empty, Williston Hall burned to the ground.

The fire was first spotted by Reverend J.P. Nichols of the Congregational Church, who noticed flashing lights at the north end of the building. He decided to investigate and realized that Williston Hall was afire. Although the source of the fire remains unknown, there is great speculation that it was caused by an electrical wiring problem.

Various reports and articles document the Williston Hall fire, most catering to the interest of Mount Holyoke students who were away for the holidays. Because the majority of students were absent, the faculty and townspeople contributed their efforts to save the contents of the building and to extinguish the blaze.

Professor of Physiology, Abby Howe Turner, and student, Eleanor D. Mason '19, were both present and active during the blaze. Their first hand accounts describe the intense effort that faculty put into saving their colleagues' research, papers and discoveries from destruction. The townspeople's' efforts mainly contributed to controlling the fire and attempting to put it out.

Turner's account is much more detailed and thorough, probably because it was written shortly after the fire. Mason's account lacks clarity and is somewhat disheveled, mostly likely due to the fact that it was recorded sixty years later in 1983. However, despite the large gap between their accounts, both Mason and Turner conveyed similar sentiments and memories when recalling the fire.

"We saved many of the department things from my office, Miss Stokey's office was well cleared and most of her research material saved. But no one went elsewhere for the flames rushed through the building at a speed that was amazing.(8)"
Read Abby Howe Turner's Account

"We were snow-shoeing back across the fields above Upper Lake when we saw the great billows of smoke which turned out to be Williston burning down.(9)"
Read Eleanor D. Mason's Account

Facts About the Fire

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This page was created by Lindsay Theile '04 in History 283, Fall Semester 2003 -