Sixty years later: Remembering Old Main Dormitory

The Old Main Dormitory caught on fire in 1959, leaving behind a crumbling skeleton of bricks. It was located off the Drill Field and housed thousands of students.

The fire illuminated the sky, a glow visible from Oktoc, leaving behind the smoldering skeleton of the original Old Main Dormitory 60 years ago.

At that time, Mississippi State University President Ben Hilbun said in its final moments the dormitory claimed a sacrifice of one of its residents, Henry Williamson.

“When it came time for Old Main to go, it made its exit in a spectacle of awesome beauty,” Hilbun stated. “It etched its outline in flame against the night skies and sat itself down in massive rubble upon its own foundation.”

In a letter sent by Malcolm Gray, the director of housing at the time, to Joseph P. Nye of Columbia University, Gray said there was mystery as to how Henry Williamson died in the blaze. There were an estimated 700 students in the building the night of the fire.

“We were very fortunate in losing only one student,” Gray wrote in the letter. “He (Williamson) had been out of the building and attempted to return to his room about 40 minutes after the fire started and was trapped in some way, just how we will never know.”

The Old Main housed about 40,000 students in its time as a dormitory from 1881 to 1959. The cause of the fire is still unknown, but many leading theories are that it was caused by a knocked over candelabra or faulty wiring, as Gray mentioned in his letter.

According to Gray, the fire started on the third floor and spread to the attic, leaving 250 to 300 students with loss of their personal property. Gray’s estimate for the replacement of the building was $3 million.

In the end of the letter, Gray listed five things or lessons he learned from the fire, and here are the two tips, number one and four, he gave that stood out the most.

“1. Do not use ancient buildings of this type if there is anyway possible to avoid their use... 4. a building wide warning system should be installed,” Gray wrote.

The only building-wide warning system used the night of the fire included two patrolmen firing their revolvers in the air, waking up students who were not already awake for their first days of final exams at 2:30 a.m.

The Old Main Dormitory was an icon of the university, almost as old as the university itself, and three years older than this publication. With the building in ruin, Hilbun suggested in the Feb. 3, 1959 issue of The Reflector that the salvageable leftover bricks from the building should be used to construct a memorial.

This is how the Chapel of Memories rose from the ashes of Old Main, and now it sits across the road from the new Old Main Academic Center, which offers a nod to the past as the building was constructed to look like the original.

Kathy Curto was nine years old when the fire occurred, and she was living in her grandmother's old antebellum house near where the Pointe Apartments are today. She said her father helped clean up the aftermath of the fire.

“We could see the smoke, you could easily smell the smoke,” Curto said. “My mother took me over there to see it after it burned. You could see the remains. My father helped clean up–he had a dozer and he was helping clean up.”

A fire escape ladder found in the clean up was kept on their property until it was donated to the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum in 2014. Curto said the mangled ladder has a bent appearance because the intense heat bent the frame.

An article in the Starkville Daily News titled “Survivor: Tree in the quadrangle” honored one of the last Old Main icons before it was removed from the location where Old Main once stood. The tree once stretched from the current McCool Hall to the Colvard Student Union. It was located in the middle of the dorm’s outdoor square.

“That tree too is gone now, the victim of a much needed parking lot,” the article states.

While the original Old Main crumbled 60 years ago, it still lives in the spirit of MSU, in the chapel of Memories and the new Old Main Academic Center.

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