When lightning struck on that stormy June night, it appeared that Mother Nature might accomplish what foes in other parts of Kansas had failed to do – prevent the growth of a major state institution of higher learning in southeast Kansas.
But from the moment that the fire alarms first sounded, the spirit that would ensure the future of what is now Pittsburg State University was evident. Hundreds of students, faculty members and townspeople immediately rushed to help, despite considerable danger.
The volunteers removed books, desks, and other materials from the north end of the building until a strong wind from the south spread the flames throughout the entire structure. When chemicals stored in the chemistry lab exploded, everyone knew it was finally time to leave the building.
It is not hard to imagine the chaos, with firemen shouting orders over the roar of the fire. The sound and flames made Deck and Cap, two horses that pulled one of the fire engines, skittish and volunteer Rex Tanner rushed over to calm them.
We can only imagine the emotions shared by the hundreds of spectators who watched Pittsburg.
Tanner, from Erie, was a graduate of the young normal school. After a year as public school principal at Weir, Tanner had returned that summer to work on an advanced degree. Standing next to him that night was another student, Harry Geminer, and a local resident, George Sparks. Suddenly, a power line that extended from Russ Hall to the nearby Industrial Arts Building fell.
The writhing wire snaked over the backs of the horses and the three men. Tanner and Deck were killed instantly. Geminer and Sparks were only slightly injured. Deck’s mate, Cap, was knocked down but eventually staggered to his feet and survived the ordeal. Two firemen, Clyde Miles and J.E. Sears, were caught beneath another live wire that night and received minor burns.
As dawn broke on the morning of June 30, firemen were still pouring water on the smoldering remnants of Russ Hall. With the new day came the full realization of the extent of the loss. Russ Hall was not just the school’s first permanent building – it was essentially the school. Russ Hall was uninsured and it was not certain that the Legislature would support its reconstruction. The school could close.
The Russ Hall fire was the first test of leadership for President William A. Brandenburg, who had been selected to lead the school just 10 months before.
Less than 24 hours after the last flames were extinguished, President Brandenburg stood in the midst of the rubble and pledged to the anxious students and faculty that “SMTN would carry on.” Two hours after Brandenburg’s proclamation, students, faculty, and townspeople gathered at the Orpheum Theater to make plans for temporary classrooms and office space.
Some classes were shifted into the just-completed Industrial Arts building. Other classes were scheduled for large tents that were erected on the campus grounds. Downtown buildings were borrowed for classrooms and the Methodist Church and a city high school were made available. A temporary auditorium was even erected next to the Industrial Arts building. Thanks to the efforts of the entire community, summer school classes continued without interruption and the campus was made ready for fall classes in September.
On the same day that Brandenburg declared that the normal school would go on, he began working with city leaders to ensure that funds would be in place for the rebuilding of Russ Hall, with or without help from the Legislature. Quickly, the citizens pledged $100,300.
The work of clearing the rubble and rebuilding Russ Hall began immediately and by the beginning of the fall semester, the less-damaged north end of Russ Hall was ready for classes. In February 1915, the Legislature passed an emergency appropriations bill that provided for the reimbursement of citizens who contributed to the Russ Hall rebuilding fund. The central and south sections of the building, including the installation of the now beloved marble stairs, were completed by the fall of 1915 and the building was rededicated on September 30, 1915, just 15 months after the fire.
Today, the Russ Hall fire lives on as an iconic moment in the university’s rich history. Inside the front entrance to Russ Hall, students and visitors pass by a brass plaque that honors Rex Tanner. The only visible evidence of the fire lies in the comparison of the stairs at the north and south ends of the building. Students heading to classes on the south end of Russ Hall climb up fire-resistant stairs of concrete and steel. On the north, however, they climb century-old oak stairs with carved newel posts.
In the century that has passed since the Russ Hall fire, the university has faced many challenges. In their quest for ways to meet those challenges, leaders from the university and the community alike frequently invoke memories of the spirit exhibited on campus and in the community that June in 1914 – a spirit that they say still exists.
E.T. Hackney, president of the Kansas Board of Administration, noted that community spirit when he visited Pittsburg two days after the fire.
“I am satisfied,” he said, “that there is no emergency which you people of Pittsburg cannot meet. . . . I believe that Pittsburg people now realize the importance of this institution, not merely to this city but to the state. No other educational institution in the state . . . so reaches out and touches the lives of all the people of Kansas as does the Pittsburg Normal. Neither the state nor the city can afford to permit a single day’s halt in the forward progress of this institution.”