Collinwood 1908: Bringing A Fire Back Into History

2016-10-14T10:12:29-04:00October 6, 2016|


On March 4, 1908, flames tore through the Lake View School building in Collinwood, Ohio, trapping many of the roughly 350 people in it. 172 children, two teachers, and one rescuer died. In the following week, Collinwood, then a suburb adjacent to Cleveland, buried nearly half of its children. This tragedy has been all but lost in most accounts of American history, even as the Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire in New York is widely known and taught.

The Collinwood Fire, 1908  aims to bring the Collinwood fire back into the history of the United States. Its images, videos, and archival documents situate the fire within the context of rapid industrial expansion in the Midwest, growing immigration and racial tension, the history of education, and the rise of consumer culture.

It is hard to describe but absolutely absorbing: the Collinwood Fire, 1908 is a digital-native storytelling experiment, and includes a 7 minute animation, photos of old movie theaters in Cleveland, insight into mass media coverage of the day, and other archival research that provide larger context for the fire. It tells stories “across media and in ways that have simply not been available before.”

Come on in and take a look around.



  1. Joe Lowry October 7, 2016 at 10:03 am

    The comparison between Collinwood and Triangle Shirtwaist isn’t quite even. Triangle Shirtwaist occurred at a time when work place conditions was a national topic of debate, unions were gaining strength, and the media was looking for salacious images to splash on the front page. The bodies of women on the pavement was perfect imagery to advance each of those causes. As a result, Triangle Shirtwaist resulted in fire code changes and workplace safety regulations.

    Collinwood was not part of a larger national narrative and as a result (an unfortunate result), it would not have the same impact in school safety. It wouldn’t be until the Our Lady of the Angels fire in Chicago in 1958 that we would see significant fire code changes. Again, this is due in part to media coverage. The Our Lady of the Angels fire resulted in front page images of firefighters carrying out the bodies of children who were piled 10 deep in the front door.

    My larger point is that these fires, Triangle Shirtwaist and Our Lady of the Angels, are better known not because of the event but because of their lasting impact. Collinwood is less well known for the same reason. I applaud the effort to make people more aware of each of these events.

    • Michael Newbury October 7, 2016 at 1:21 pm

      Great comment.

      The question of what and how we honor and remember is at the heart of our Collinwood project. Triangle is popularly celebrated as an unambiguous watershed in the history of occupational safety, but many historians see a more complicated and tangled legacy. Abundant compromises and conflicts took place in the formulation of legislation, enforcement was often weak, and within a few years much of the urgency generated by the Triangle fire was gone. Triangle was, sort of, a watershed, but the history is complicated. In our desire to grasp history and wish for progress, we tend to ignore the complexity of the processes around it.

      At the same time, school safety and architecture have never been more actively pondered and theorized in US History than they were at the turn of the twentieth century, though that pondering continues into our age of “active shooter” safety drills. For more on this, see the “Built for Disaster” section of the website.

      I’d say we tend to honor Triangle in ways that make us feel good about the possibilities of reform and change. We (mostly) don’t even remember Collinwood, probably because that story hasn’t been presented as a progressive triumph, though it did lead to safer schools in Ohio. It also doesn’t hurt that Triangle happened in NYC, which has been an absolutely central location for examining Progressive era history, sometimes at the expense of other locations.

      It’s crucial, though, to remember failures, inequities, and fundamental injustices as sometimes enduring, or at least partially enduring, rather than as rectified by a watershed event. Of course, it’s harder to live with, teach, and learn this kind of confusion; it’s a little more tragic, too.

      On another note, those of us who worked on The Collinwood Fire, 1908 are happy that so many readers of Belt are checking it out!

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