New state marker honors Lakeview fire victims

By RAY JABLONSKI
Staff Writer

May 22, 2003

The legacy of the tragic Lakeview Elementary School fire of 1908 has been further preserved through a state historical marker.

In a ceremony Friday at the Memorial Garden in front of Memorial School, approximately 40 local and state officials gathered to dedicate a historical marker in remembrance of the fire that took 175 lives, the largest school fire in American history.

"It was a very nice event," said Pat McNamara, interim executive director of the Northeast Shores Development Corporation, which is in the process of selling the Memorial School property to the Cleveland Municipal School District.

McNamara said Joe Wagner, a former Northeast Shores board member who served on the committee to build the Memorial Garden there, said the rainy conditions Friday offered the perfect backdrop for the ceremony.

"He said an event like this should be held on a dreary day," McNamara said.

The school fire is one of numerous historical events and places throughout Ohio that are being commemorated through the markers from the Ohio Bicentennial Commission's Longaberger Legacy Initiative and the Ohio Historical Society. Leslie Walker of the Bicentennial Commission said this will be one of hundreds of markers installed around the state, including nearly four dozen in Cuyahoga County.

"We will have more than 600 markers throughout the state," Walker said. Those include the Longaberger markers and separate Ohio Heritage markers that honor some of the notable figures in the state's history.

After a series of speeches on the site's history and an explanation of the historical marker program, the marker was unveiled. It is a cast aluminum marker weighing over 100 pounds with writing on both sides and will be permanently installed on the site within a month.

"It's a solid marker," McNamara said. "It's not going anywhere."

The marker describes the history of the site and explains the events of March 4, 1908, when a fire at the former Lakeview Elementary School claimed the lives of 172 school children ages 6-15, two teachers and a neighborhood resident trying to rescue people from the burning building. The fire was the worst school tragedy in the nation's history and the big reason for that was that the school doors opened inward. Once the fire started, everyone rushed for the doors and in the stampede, the doors could not be opened.

Since that fire, new safety standards have been put into place in the United States and other countries to ensure a tragedy such as the Lakeview fire will never happen again. For example, it is now mandated that the doors on all school buildings open outward.

Maggie Keenan, executive director for Second Growth Institute, said the nonprofit organization helped sponsor the historical marker after an SGI official who works for the Cleveland Catholic Diocese learned about the program in a meeting with a member of the Ohio Bicentennial Commission.

"We had originally hoped we could do something at Five Points, since we're working on that project," Keenan said, referring to the Five Points Initiative project in the industrial triangle south of St. Clair Avenue. She said SGI officials were aware of the history of the Memorial site and when they recommended that site to the Bicentennial Commission for a marker, they agreed it was a perfect fit.

"It will be a permanent reminder, no matter whether the school is rebuilt or the garden is rearranged, people will always know what happened on that day," McNamara said.

Councilman Michael Polensek, D-11, said the Memorial site deserves to have a marker describing the story of what took place there 95 years ago.

"I thought it was very nice that Second Growth did that," Polensek said. "It reinforces how historical that site is."

Polensek said that fire forever changed Collinwood, from the obvious effect on the scores of families whose children perished in the fire to Collinwood itself, which was a incorporated village in 1908.

"That fire eventually brought about the annexation by Cleveland (two years later) because they couldn't adequately fight the fire," Polensek said of the Collinwood Village safety forces.

"Who's to say what would have happened had the fire not taken place," Polensek said.

Polensek said with a new school in the works at Memorial, it will create the perfect complement to the Memorial Garden and now the historical marker.

"We have possibly the hope of continuing the name Memorial at the new school," Polensek said. "(The Cleveland Municipal School District) can create a jewel there once again."

Polensek said people must always remember the legacy of the school fire.

"There's a lot of emotion attached to that site," Polensek said. "When you forget about your history, you fail to think about your future."

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