Posts Tagged ‘collinwood school fire’


Gretchen Dorn was 10 years old when she perished in the Collinwood School Fire. Her stone shows signs of severe weathering, and I don’t know that I would have recognized it for what it was if I didn’t already know that she was buried in Woodland Cemetery not far from the Swanson children who died in the same tragedy. Gretchen is one of the children that we have a surviving photograph of, which is uploaded to her Find A Grave entry.


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I’ve written before about being a part of the Collinwood-Nottingham Historical Society’s project to locate the graves of the children who perished in the Collinwood School Fire of 1908. Of the students for whom we have burial information, all but 4 were interred on the east side of Cleveland or in one of its eastern suburbs. One child, Dorothy Hart, is supposed to be buried at Spring Grove Cemetery in Medina, Ohio, and I have an email in to the cemetery sexton asking for assistance in locating her burial records and grave. There are also three boys (Norman, Max, and James Turner) whose bodies were sent back to Oswego, New York, to be buried with their grandmother. Unlike with Dorothy Hart, however, there is not a specific cemetery listed in the records. I’ve found some Collinwood victims in a completely haphazard manner – just going to a cemetery to do photography and finding them, but I can’t very well head to Oswego for the morning to do the same. Also, Oswego has a number of cemeteries listed as being in the city, and there are more in the county as a whole. I tried searching on Find a Grave to see if some kind soul had by chance already created a memorial for the Turners. I am taking any suggestions on where to start to narrow down my cemetery search and figure out which Oswego cemetery they rest in.

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On this date, 103 years ago, tragedy descended upon Collinwood, Ohio. Sitting just east of Cleveland along Lake Erie, the previously fairly obscure municipality would be a household name within a matter of hours. On the morning of March 4, 1908, Collinwood’s Lake View School caught fire. Approximately 172 students, 2 teachers, and 1 rescuer died in the worst school fire in United States history.

In preparation for commemorating the anniversary of the tragedy, some members of the local community came together in what has now become the Collinwood-Nottingham Historical Society. The fire contributed to Collinwood’s absorption into Cleveland in 1910. Nottingham is the adjacent community, also now subsumed into the city.

The fire was one of the most significant events in local history, and it created a flurry of records in the form of things like newspaper accounts, death records, and memorials. It was a possible opportunity to find out what life was like in turn-of-the-20th century Collinwood. And so the Historical Society began to compile all the information they could about these victims. (I joined the Historical Society in 2010.) We wanted to see what the stories about their deaths would provide us about their lives, and we wanted to make sure those lives and tragic deaths were properly memorialized.

We’ve learned some things. We understand better the ethnic composition of the community at the time and have come to more strongly appreciate the influence of immigration in shaping the neighborhood. We’ve disproven the common assumption that all the school fire victims are buried at Lake View Cemetery. But mainly the answers to our questions seem to have provided us with…more questions.


We aren’t even sure the commonly accepted victim count of 175 is correct. No one actually knows how many children were in the school building that day when the fire started, and many of the victims were burned beyond the regular methods of recognition. Their parents and relatives attempted to match names to their loved one by a scrap of hair ribbon, an unsinged keepsake in a pocket, a shred of fabric. There are a number of lists that attempt to tally the school fire victims – and they don’t match. They do not contain all the same names and they do not contain the same number of names. Having 19 bodies ultimately determined to be beyond identification muddies the waters as well – no death certificates, no concrete list of who those 19 are assumed to be – after all, the parents still knew who never came home and must be somewhere among the dead. I’ve concentrated mainly on the cemetery research – if the children aren’t all buried in Lake View, then where are the rest? Sometimes finding a tombstone opens new doors for inquiry.

Mildred Schmitt and Emma

Why does this angel for Mildred Schmitt have this inscription on the side?

Emma (3 of 4)

Who is Emma? According to the obituary information I’ve found so far, Mildred was the daughter of Peter and Katie Schmitt, and she had only one sibling, a sister Lucy who was much older and wouldn’t have been enrolled in Lake View School.

Am I reading this inscription correctly on the Rostock tombstone at Euclid Cemetery?


Is the last word “unidentified”? Is Emil Rostock really in Euclid Cemetery at all? Or is he one of the unidentifiable children buried behind the memorial at Lake View Cemetery?

We probably won’t ever have all the answers to these questions. But someday, I hope we have more than we do now.

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I’ve been uploading a lot of photos from East Cleveland Township Cemetery lately, which involves transcribing at least the name and dates on the stone into the website’s database. Examining each stone closely means that I notice some things that I haven’t before. One of the things that struck me was having a few stones in a row where the memorialized shared a death date.

Mammie M. and Daniel J. Frank


I’m also including Eva and Edith Wachhaus in this count, because I know they died the same day – March 4, 1908, in the Collinwood School Fire.


I don’t know what happened to the Frank or the Ford children – was it an accident that ripped two children from the family in one day? Was it an illness? How did their families cope with such tragedy?

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Tomorrow evening (Saturday, February 19, 2011) is the 2nd annual meeting of the Collinwood-Nottingham Historical Society. Doors open at 6 pm at the St. Mary’s Church School Auditorium (15519 Holmes Avenue
Cleveland, OH USA 44110). There will be light refreshments, displays about our local history work, and a showing of Kelleher, Russell & Young’s second Euclid Beach video Euclid Beach II – Gone too Soon.

I am the newest member of the Historical Society Board and some of my cemetery photography will be on display as part of the research on the Collinwood School Fire. I hope to see some of you there.

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Euclid Cemetery has two nearly identical tombstones that look like two hearts side-by-side. Sadly, these tombstones are for four children (two sets of siblings) who died in the Collinwood School Fire of 1908.  Rose Sophie and Erma Marie Buschman were laid to rest on one end of the cemetery, and Lillian Carrie and Emil Otto Rostock sleep at the other.

Rose Sophie and Erma Marie Buschman


Lillian Carrie and Emil Otto Rostock

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The Swanson family lost three children in the Collinwood School Fire. Edwin, Hulda, and Fred rest along with their brother Paul, who died as an infant. (If you look along the side of the monument in the photo below, you can see the inscription for Paul.)


My friend Mary Louise, the president of the Collinwood-Nottingham Historical Society and driving force behind their research of the Collinwood school fire, was showing me the location of the Swanson children’s graves when she told me there was something else I had to see. She pointed out to me that their mother, Minnie, was eventually buried next to her four children.


There’s a space on the other side of the Swanson children’s stone where you would expect their father to be, but no grave marker. We found Mr. Swanson’s marker several feet away, looking out of place, and, worse yet, upside down.



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Collinwood School Fire Memorial

On March 4, 1908, the Lakeview School in Collinwood (now a neighborhood of Cleveland), Ohio, burst into flame. By the time the flames were put out on that Ash Wednesday morning, a rescuer, two teachers, and 172 of the students had perished. Nineteen bodies could not be positively identified.

The city of Collinwood commissioned this monument for the students. The unidentified victims and some of their classmates lie buried around it.

Collinwood School Fire Memorial

My friend will swear to you that this monument moves. She cannot set out to find the school fire marker, because she will get lost in Lake View and never make it there. On the other hand, on the occasions when someone else manages to drive her there, she cannot approach the monument. The closer she gets, the more the feeling of fear rises in her, and she can feel the heat of the flames and hear the anguish of the other students.


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In yesterday’s post, I referred to lambs as a funerary symbol heavily associated with children, but I realized I haven’t shown many of them yet. We already looked at the sadly decapitated and deteriorating lambs for Fern and Wanita Robinson, victims of the Lake View School fire in Collinwood, Ohio, in 1908.

Fern and Wanita Robinson

This lamb is in even worse shape – I am not sure I could even tell you the name that is on it.

You can also find a lamb for little Frieda in Euclid Cemetery, worn with age but holding onto its head. Frieda’s marker suffers from a second common problem. A significant portion of children’s markers contain only first names. They are often placed near larger markers with surnames, but over time the delineations between family plots are not as clear to us as they were to the people who originally placed the memorials.


In the best condition of the lambs in the cemetery is the one for baby Arnold Miller.


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The Lake View School fire (often referred to as the Collinwood School Fire, from the name of the community) is a particular area of interest for me.  On my trip to the Euclid Cemetery, I located 4 markers for 7 fire victims.   Three of the markers are for siblings who perished in the fire.  Euclid is set up with its entrance off of Concordia Road, and there is a single road that snakes down through the cemetery and deposits you at a light on Euclid Avenue.

Lillian Carrie and Emil Otto Rostock

The first marker is fairly close the top of the hill, on your left as you drive in.  It is a marker shaped like two hearts next to one another for the Rostock children, Lillian and Emil.  Lillian was 6 and Emil was 12.  Under Emil’s name, birth date, and death date is the added word, “unidentified.”  Like Emma on the Schmitt Angel in Lakeview Cemetery, it appears that Emil was not able to be laid to rest next to his sister.  The back of the marker reads: “Here lie our well-deserving children, Emil and Lillian, Lake View School fire victims.


Jump with me now to the other end cemetery, the portion closest to Euclid Avenue.  Here are the Buschman sisters, Rose and Erma.
Rose Sophie and Erma Marie Buschman

And they have almost the same stone as the Rostocks.  The shape is the same set of side-by-side hearts with one name in each heart.  And on the back is a nearly duplicate inscription, “Here lie our well-deserving daughters, Erma and Rose, Lake View school fire victims.”

It isn’t completely surprising that two families who each lost two children in the same tragedy  would order such similar markers, but it’s still an interesting coincidence.  The monument carvers must have been overwhelmed by the number of markers needed after a tragedy like that, and it seems likely that the Rostock and Buschman families ordered from the same person or company.  Someone on find-a-grave posted a photo that is supposed of to be of these two girls.

The other three fire victims are also in this area.  Raymond Gould’s single marker has an open book with a poem on top of it.  His marker is pretty close to the road after its final turn coming down towards Euclid Avenue.

Raymond Gould

The marker that is showing its age the most is the one for Fern and Wanita Robinson.  At the moment, the best way to describe to find the marker is to go to the last big tree before the road exits the cemetery onto Euclid Avenue.  Walk straight up the hill, looking for a small white marker with the remains of two lambs facing one another.  The lambs have, for lack of a better term, been decapitated over time.   You will be walking up to the back of the marker.  This marker, even more so than the others, is hard to read.  Fern and Wanita are listed as the daughters of Wm. and Bertha Robinson.

Fern and Wanita Robinson

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