history sc fire

Undertaker Charles Evans (shorter man in front) and other local residents survey the damage the day after the fire.

By Jim Buchanan

 

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first time public schools have closed in Jackson County.

A polio outbreak sparked one closure, the Spanish flu pandemic another.

But there was at least one other time a call to shutter public schools was raised, in this instance by the editorial page of the Jackson County Journal.

The Journal had good cause. In this case it wasn’t disease, but unsafe building conditions, a lesson painfully hammered home by an incident over the state line in South Carolina that has faded from the memories of many.

The unspeakable tragedy that raised a call for action from the Journal most definitely deserves to be remembered.

Located near Camden in Kershaw County, S.C., the Cleveland Public School was the scene of a celebration on May 17, 1923, as the school year drew to a close. Around 300 people packed into a second-story room measuring 20’ by 40’ feet to see the graduating class put on a rendition of the comedy “Miss Topsy Turvy.”

The exit from that site was a small doorway that led from a cloakroom to an exterior stair.

As the play progressed, heat from an oil lamp hanging near the stage curtains damaged the wiring holding the lamp in place. It crashed to the floor, burst, and the lamp oil ignited in all directions.

In the ensuing panic, numerous people were trampled in the rush to the exit; the weight of escaping humanity caused the stairs to collapse.

Others died from smoke inhalation, crashing debris and from burns.

All told, 77 people died. Many of the bodies were badly burned, and only 25 were positively identified. Identification was also challenging because in some cases entire families perished.

Bodies that weren’t claimed were buried in a mass grave at Beulah Methodist Church Cemetery.

The terrible tale gripped the nation. The Jackson County Journal looked around and saw it was a tale that could be repeated here.

 

From the May 28, 1923 edition:

 

THE CLEVELAND 

HOLOCAUST

 

Seventy-five people, 41 children, 18 men, and 16 women, lost their lives when a schoolhouse in Kershaw County, South Carolina, burned to the ground while the graduating exercises were in progress.

Horrible, yes, the awful tragedy of such a scene beggars description. People gathered to see the commencement exercises of the youth, that was the pride of their hearts, and suddenly a lamp falls, the building is in flames, there is a panic, no fire escapes, the stairway falls, the commencement exercises become finals indeed, and 75 people pass into eternity, while a county, a state, yes, a sisterhood of states, are plunged into mourning.

It happened in Kershaw County, South Carolina. It could have easily happened elsewhere, even in Jackson County, North Carolina, in any one of several schoolhouses; but the fates decreed otherwise. No person or group of persons is responsible for the Cleveland catastrophe, or for its counterpart that might happen, anywhere, any day. The blame rests upon an unnoticed system of false values that appraises dollar at a higher price than human beings, and upon us all, who have permitted a system of penuriousness to continue to gamble with death, the stakes being the lives of men, women, and little children against a few paltry dollars. … It should be seen to that every school house in Jackson County with a second story, including the public school building in Sylva, is provided with adequate fire escapes before another term of school begins, or another public meeting of any kind is held in any of them.

 

***

 

The Journal was not alone in raising the alarm. Firefighters and officials in South Carolina and across the nation took the Cleveland fire as a wakeup call.

Within 10 years routine fire marshal inspections, occupancy limitations, marked and lighted exits and fire drills were the norm around the country.

We often forget what a threat fire presented in the days of open flames, the days before sprinkler systems, fire alarms and professional fire departments became the norm.

That fact was pointed out in the editorial directly above the Journal’s plea for safer schools. In that one, the need for hotel accommodations in the area was the topic of the day.

Sylva’s only accommodation, The Commercial Hotel, had been destroyed by fire the previous month.