The United States was in the midst of World War I when Olympia High School burned down on July 1, 1918. It was a Tudor-style stone building constructed in 1907 at a site now near the sunken garden on the Washington State Capitol Campus. The land was donated by Mary McFadden Miller to be a school, on the condition that it would be named for her late husband William Winlock Miller, a territorial official. This remains the little-used official name of Olympia High School.
However, Olympia High School was in the way of the planned Capitol Campus. The Temple of Justice was built in 1913 and the Washington State Capitol Commission purchased the school building in early 1918. By the end of June, the Olympia School Board had requested to let classes stay until Thanksgiving due to delays on building a new high school a few blocks away (near the present day Washington State Archives). The Capitol Commission was expected to approve the request at its next meeting, though it wanted the students out before legislative session met so that the State Industrial Insurance Commission could relocate its offices to the building.
It had been a very dry and hot summer. The high school was being cleaned and had been fumigated a few weeks before. Nothing seemed amiss when janitor D. R. Webb, closed up the empty building shortly before five o’clock and headed home.
Around 5 o’clock, state librarian J. M. Hitt noticed smoke from the assembly hall roof of the high school as he passed a window in the Temple of Justice, where the library was then located, and called in an alarm. The fire moved quickly and within 15 minutes the entire assembly room roof was engulfed in flames and the fire spread to the second story. The fire department arrived soon on the scene, but they quickly deemed that their chemical truck was inadequate. They laid down one water hose and returned to base for a water and ladder truck.
Meanwhile, others had taken matters into their own hands. Will Eads was the first in the building, breaking through the front door. Joined by two bricklayers from the new high school construction site, they carried out desks and filing cases of records. They tried to fight the fire with a hose from the hall, but were forced to retreat. City superintendent C. E. Beach, board member E. C. Townsend, teacher E. R. Thomas and a score of volunteers (many of them high school students) carried out furniture and equipment including typewriters, a large statue and a phonograph. Some of the students set up the phonograph outside and played Antonin Dvorak’s “Humoresque” as the school burned.
Fire and smoke were visible from across the city. The Olympia Daily Recorder newspaper, reported that “with the first alarm more than 1,000 people rushed to the scene. Dozens of automobiles raced up Main Street [now Capitol Way] at high speed. During the fire, it was with difficulty that the small boys who insisted on helping with the hose lines were kept away from the danger line.” It seems amazing that no one was killed or injured in the fire.
The Olympia fire department now had hoses and a water wagon at the scene, but water pressure was low and the only way to reach the flames on the second story was to climb up ladders to the west windows and aim in the hose, manned by a volunteer firefighter from the nearby shipyards. They felt the fire could be contained to the second story and even set up ladders and hoses at the north windows.
Then the fire broke through to the first floor. After that, there was no saving the building. Meanwhile, the fire threatened nearby structures. Nearly a block away from the high school, the A.M. Rowe family home was gutted. Volunteers wetted down the roof of St. Peter’s Hospital (which was then located on land that is now part of the State Capitol Campus) and even considered evacuating patients. A hole had to be cut into the burning roof of the Red Cross Surgical Dressings Department’s headquarters at the Reed House.
In the end, damages were estimated to be about $40,000 total for the houses, school, and equipment. The school was in ruins, leaving only three brick chimneys and the stone walls. The cause of the fire was never discovered, but was possibly caused by lab chemicals or faulty wiring. High school students would meet in temporary quarters until the new building opened in January 1919.
Olympia High School relocated to its current location in 1961 and was extensively remodeled in 2000. One lesson from the 1918 disaster: fire safety is important. Olympia schools are much safer today. The 1918 fire was a traumatic event, but thankfully not a tragedy.