Cleveland School Fire of 1923

On May 17th, 1923 in Camden, South Carolina, over 300 people were packed in the Cleveland school.

The Cleveland School circa 1920's

The Cleveland School circa 1920's

They were there for a children’s graduation play that ended in tragedy.  News from the small town would be known all over the country by morning.

The play was a tradition that would be the last that night. It was announced that the school would close after this school year and that these would be the last students to pass through these halls.

The building was a two-story, wooden frame building with the auditorium and stage on the second floor. The key feature of the second floor was a 30 inch staircase which was the only exit from the second floor.

As was customary in those days, oil lamps were burned when night fell.  They hung along the corridor and above the stage.  At approximately 21:00 hours a lamp that was above the stage fell and started a fire on the stage.  There were attempts to put the fire out with coats but the fire spread to the stage curtains.

With the room being filled beyond capacity and the obstacle of chairs, the exiting of people was difficult at best. As people realized that the exit was jammed, they started jumping out of the second story windows and were severely injured.  The room was dark, filled with smoke and getting hotter and more putrid.

CSchool8

As the stair way was full with people stuck on them, they finally gave way from the weight, spilling them to the floor below.  At the same time, the upper floor was also  slipping onto the floor below.

That night 77 people lost their lives at a school event that should have ended with celebration and refreshments.  Instead the community was tasked with finding the bodies of those who did not make it out.

There is a reason we have fire codes and building codes. It also shows the importance of inspections and code enforcement.  Over the years we have made great strides in fire prevention and fire codes.  But, we have to make sure that corridors are free of clutter and that protection systems are in place and maintained.

Stay diligent and keep your community safe before the fire starts.

You can find more on this fire at  http://www.scarboroughgenealogy.com/Cleveland.htm

Pictures are from the same site listed above.

5 Comments

  • Bertie Shiver Johnson says:

    I have read this story over and over. I do genealogy and think I have some relatives..doing more research. Thanks for putting this out there.

  • Carroll Price says:

    Dunnie Truesdale, who was my father, Ellie Price’s best boyhood friend lost his life in this fire. I have a photograph of them taken about 3 years prior to the tragedy.

  • alison mullison says:

    Look up The Cleveland School Fire by J.H.Moseley -has a list and details of all people who perished in this fire. Hope this helps.

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  • Nancy G Chesnutt says:

    My great uncle, Dan Sowell, lost his two daughters in the fire. His son, Frank, had to drive the buggy home and tell his parents they died in the fire. Their bodies were identified and buried at Beulah Methodist Church. There is also a mass grave there for bodies that could not be identified. My mother was not allowed to go that night because she went to school in Camden and it was a school night.

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