COLLEGE PARK, Md. (WJZ) — One hundred years ago this week, fire swept through the College Park campus of what is now the University of Maryland.

Alex DeMetrick takes a look back at what was called the Great Fire of 1912.

Students at the University of Maryland still climb a hill to the campus’ high point. Back in 1912, it was pretty much the entire campus of what was then the Maryland Agricultural College.

The last week of November, the all-male student body invited local women to a dinner dance. It ended when fire broke out in the nearby administration building.

“[They tried to save] furniture. College records. Other possessions they were trying to move out of the building. The fire spread very rapidly, however, into the barracks next door,” said UM Archivist Anne Turkos.

Called “barracks” because as a land grant college, the 265 students had to have military training. It inadvertently made the fire hard to put out because each student had a rifle and a few days before the blaze, someone chose the campus water tower as a target.

“One of the students shot a hole in it with his rifle and they were draining it down to repair that facility,” Turkos said.

The resulting low water pressure was no match for a high wind and heavy flames. Nearly everything the students owned was lost, forcing the college to find rooms for them in area homes.

While the fire was a tremendous blow to the college, it also marked the beginning of what is now the University of Maryland.

“It certainly gave us a chance to rethink our purpose and/or intention and our direction. So yes, I would say from the ashes of this event rose what we know today as the modern University of Maryland,” Turkos said.

While the exact cause was never determined, it’s believed the fire started with either an electrical short or by spontaneous combustion from oily rags.


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