The Revoluntionary College Project
William Smith Hall

William Smith Hall after the 1916 fire

Amy Uebel graduated from Washington College in 2007.

Red SwirlWashington College after the Fires

By Amy Elizabeth Uebel

“Thy deeds and this with Grecian’s Homer fly”:
The self-perception of Washington College after the fires

What happens when fire strikes a college and leaves it devastated? What happens when the fire destroys not only a few important books, but the entire collection of the college’s historical documents and all the housing on campus?  Washington College has faced this issue several times, first in 1827 when the original college building burnt and again in 1916 when the heating plant caught fire in William Smith.  Each time the fires destroyed the most important building on campus.[1]  Priceless records were lost, and the libraries were reduced to kindling for the fire; yet, the college rebuilt itself each time disaster struck.  How the college perceived and presented itself to the public in the intervening months (or in the case of the 1827 fire, years) played an enormous role in the rebuilding process.  This self-perception provides the missing link in how the college functioned and developed in the years following the fire.  If one only views the rebuilding process through monetary eyes, much of the college’s character is lost.  Money was vital only because without it, no building could be constructed.  It is the self-perception and presentation of Washington College that explains the personality and motivations of the college, which is something that mathematical figures cannot explain.

Given the age of Washington College and its connection to George Washington and William Smith, one might assume that its image is the last thing the institution would have to worry about.  After all, Harvard University and Princeton University seem to have their reputations and images quite secure.  All the ivy and limestone buildings effervescently scream at visitors and students alike, “We were here before you, and we will be here after.”  Why is it that Washington College, who is roughly the same age as the Ivy League Schools, seems to have such an identity crisis?  For 225 years, no one at Washington has been able to agree on how to present or even PERCEIVE their own institution.  Some have seen it as the champion of Southern morals.  Others see the institution as the quintessential Eastern Shore school.  There have been times when the college has been compared to the great Roman and Greek institutions, and there were times when it was not compared with anything at all.  The only thing that seems to be agreed upon by everyone connected to the college is the fact that George Washington gave his name to the College at Chester.  This image, or more appropriately, the search for an image has defined Washington College’s history, but this search was never more apparent than in the aftermath of the two fires on campus.

The aftermath of the 1827 fire can be summed up into four words:  complete and utter chaos.  The January Tenth fire destroyed the only building on Washington College’s campus.  Along with the destruction of the building, the fire had managed to destroy most of the President, Dr. Clowes, and the Vice-President, Joseph Duncan’s belongings, and much of the furniture in the west wing that was being used as a boarding house for the students.[2]  The loss of the entirety of the college’s belongings sent the Board of Visitors and Governors reeling.  They held an emergency meeting the day after to find accommodations for the President and his family and a place to hold classes, but it is clear from the board minutes that most of the administration was in shock and had no idea where to start the rebuilding process.  The minutes from the meeting are little more than their attempt to understand what had happened.  They resolved to find suitable buildings to continue the college and to write a proposal asking the Maryland legislature for financial assistance in rebuilding, but did little else that first meeting outside delegating the board members, Major Matthew Tilghman and Joseph Wickes, 4th Esq., the job of collecting the property that was pillaged immediately after the fire.[3]  Housing for the faculty members was found for Dr. Clowes and Duncan, and the college was moved into town, but the board encountered yet another roadblock when they were informed that they could not receive any more financial aid (in the form of a lottery) from the State Legislature.  Due to another contract of a previous lottery with Palmer Canfield, in 1824, “neither they, their successors or assigns should apply for or obtain any other grant for a lottery or lotteries from the General Assembly.”[4]  Without Mr. Canfield’s permission the board could do nothing to receive more aid, and for reasons unspecified, his permission was never given to the college.


Given that few students were actually paying to attend Washington and there was no lottery available, there were insufficient funds to build a new college edifice.  Many of the students were there on scholarships, called Charity Scholars, and did not pay for their tuition, their books, or their boarding fees.  Without assistance from the state, the board could do very little except attempt to continue life as normal in rented houses in town.  They asked Dr. Clowes to follow in the footsteps of William Smith, who successfully roamed the Eastern Shore during the college’s infancy and convinced its citizens to donate money, and solicit aid from anyone who would donate.[5]  Unlike William Smith, Dr. Clowes did not seem to be successful in his appeal.  Nothing was ever said of his success at fundraising.[6]

His plea mirrored that of Smith’s ideals in the beginning.  Learning was the battle cry of choice.  An education was the reason for supporting Washington College.  The Telegraph published his plea saying that,

The Rev. Dr. Clowes, Professor of Washington College, lately burnt at Chestertown, Eastern Shore Maryland, has been commissioned by the trustees of that institution to request and from the liberal citizens of the U. States towards rebuilding the edifice.  It is the cause of learning.[7]


It was this ideal, that the college existed simply because it gave people the opportunity to learn and become educated, that governed the college.  It also was the reason for keeping the college open for the next twenty-two years, until Middle Hall was constructed, when there were few students and just one faculty member for several years in the 1830s.  The idea of education was about all the college had.  There was so little money that for six years, until 1833, no mention was made about building a new structure for the college, and a year later, the administration finally decided to “sell the rubbish” that was the ruins of the building.[8]  It would take them ten more years to begin building the new edifice.


The board may have been struggling to find a way to continue the school, but they were doing a good job at keeping up pretenses of normalcy in the everyday running of classes.  Lessons were only suspended for twelve days after the fire and began promptly on the 22nd of January under the supervision of the vice-principal, Mr. Duncan.[9]  Dr. Clowes was already on his way to the capitol to ask for assistance.  Despite the recommencement of classes in town, and the return to every day life, it appears that the community was still in shock of the college burning.  For Chestertown and the college community in 1827, this was destruction of everything they held dear—the chance to learn and have said institution in their own town.  One of the two poems written about the fire compares the burning of Washington College to the destruction of the Roman Empire.  It said,

Why should the goddess Vesta wield her sway / O’er thee, O Virgil, brightest of thy day? / The train of heroes in the Roman line, / All share the same destructive fate as thine; / Thy deed and theirs with Grecian Homer’s fly, / In trembling ashes ‘neath the clouded sky; / No more within thy walls shall be entwined / The Wreath of knowledge round the youthful mind.[10]


This comparison is a fairly lofty statement for a school that was only fifty-five years old at the time, especially when this school was receiving little state aid and was being pushed to the backburner of state politics in favor of supporting Washington’s Western Shore sister, St. John’s College. 


It was this argument, whether or not to support both schools, or just one that dominated the state legislature in March of 1827.  They were debating on whether or not to give Washington the $10,000 dollars it asked for in order to rebuild.  Several legislators argued that “one college well endowed, would be of much more utility to the state, than an attempt to sustain more than one without giving any one means to enable them to afford a complete education.”[11]  In their attempt to save stress and money by endowing a single college in the state, the legislators seem to have forgotten William Smith’s ideal of having two colleges that make up an open university system in Maryland on both shores of Maryland.  It simply did not seem to be a feasible option for the legislators of both the western and eastern shore.  There seemed to be little pride among the people on the Eastern Shore that this was a college from their homeland.  It was simply a college where one could go and become educated, and why endow one that was struggling even before the fire?


Despite the seeming negligence of the rest of the country as well as the Eastern Shore, the college still seemed to see itself as a beacon of education during this time.  When the college was mourned, it was mourned because now students would have no place to go to learn if the college foundered and died out.[12]  Even Joseph Duncan, who lost every belonging he possessed (outside that of his wife and children), mourned in his poem more for the loss of a home for learning than for his belongings.  He wrote, “There are those who mourn for thee, lonely pile; / Who with thee, have hail’d the Sun’s first smile-- / Who have sought, in thy shelter, the feast of mind, / When that orb grew pale in the northern wind.”[13]  It seems that the college did have reason to fear for the demise of their precious institution.  It is probable that the school stopped admitting students for two years while they were sorting through the debris and determining how to continue the college.  The Telegraph published in October 1829 that Washington was once again opening for admissions under the new reign of Peter Clark.  The Board of Visitors and Governors advertised that, “The Course of Studies will include all the parts of thorough English and Classical education.”[14]  They also appealed to the “liberal patronage of an enlightened community” that they generously support the college.[15]


Somewhat ironically, the 1916 fire that struck Washington College has many similarities to the fire that destroyed the original college building.  William Smith Hall was designed to loosely resemble the original building, and the fires happened had such a striking resemblance to each other that it would make any conspiracy theorist daydream.    In terms of the reaction on campus immediately following the fire, the burning of William Smith Hall in 1916 is on the complete opposite side of the spectrum.[16]  The Cain administration’s reaction was nothing like that of the Clowes administration in the nineteenth century.  William Smith Hall was rebuilt within two years, and the plans for rebuilding were in place before end of the 1916 academic year.  Furthermore, the burning of William Smith is barely more than a blip on the radar of Dr. Cain’s administration.  The February issue of the Collegian reports on the burning of Smith as does the 1917 issue for the one-year anniversary of the fire, but there exists few records in the Cain papers and when the fire is indeed mentioned, it only speaks of it as “the burning of William Smith Hall in 1916.”[17]  The 1827 fire remained an issue for weeks, months, and years after it happened.  Board meetings were consumed by finding a way to make the college continue; yet, Washington College had no problems moving on in 1916.  How is it possible that Washington College went from being crippled and almost completely destroyed by fire, and then somehow, eighty-nine years later, the college could suffer just as devastating of a fire and not even be bothered by it, outside of a few articles in the county and school newspaper and board minutes?


The main reason for the difference in reactions is that Washington had finally come out of its “dark years” as Fred Dumschott has termed the years during the early 1800s.  The early twentieth century was one of extreme growth for the college and the college administration was justifiably proud of it.  When the fire did strike in 1916, the school body was not fazed by the outcome.  The central heating plant on campus was completely destroyed, as were many of the professors’ belongings and research. Four thousand volumes were apparently lost in the library, as was a paper of George Washington’s LL.D that he received from Washington, several ledgers from early donors, and a few notebooks kept by students in 1792.  In fact, the only thing that was apparently saved from the fire was the portrait of William Smith that hangs in Bunting today and a “few chairs.”[18]  With such a loss, it could easily be assumed that the college would find it hard to continue; however, it seems that the administration under the “efficient, aggressive manner” of Dr. Cain had a plan to rebuild the very next day that (once again) involved asking the state legislature for financial aid.[19]  It was only when the administration realized the college could not transfer everything to Normal Hall (Reid) that they gave students a one-week vacation.[20]  After all, it was January and the college could not function without some heat in the dorms and gymnasium.  Once back, the college did not seem to skip a step.  The students fully backed the college administration’s asking of money saying in an editorial of the February 1916 Collegian that,

It must be rebuilt.  The State must give us an appropriation.  Because the State may be hesitant to be liberal, it is an appropriate time for all the men believing and hoping in the future of Washington College to exert their political influence in favor of this institution and not stopping there, by individual subscription make up a sum which will build a still larger William Smith Hall.  This is a crisis in the history of the college, and let all good and true men rally to the cause.[21]


This was not the cry of a college that desperately needed help.  Unlike the Washington of 1827 that desperately needed a new lottery in order to rebuild and continue the college, this was a college that claimed it deserved the money from the state because of who they were, Washington College.  Advancing higher education is indeed a glorious cause, but any institution can claim help under the guise of education.  The 1916 Washington campus may not have been the Harvard or Yale of Maryland but they felt that the institution was equally as important as St. John’s College (if not more important) and that the state should recognize them and felt that they deserved the help simply because of who they were.  The students did stress some anxiety about actually receiving aid in February of 1916 because the students added another plea in their editorial saying that,


The present administration has threatened to cut out its appropriation to Washington College.  When that happens it is going to be hard sleding for the old Eastern Shore school.  It is a difficult thing for us to understand their motive.  Of course the slogan of Harrington and his men has been economy and efficiency, but it seems to us that it would be a foolish public to allow themselves to be beguiled into believing that economy lay in ruining the finest college in the state…The men of the Eastern Shore would have lost just that much by losing Washington.[22]


Money aside, as Washington did receive the much needed aid, it seems that most students chalked the entire fire and burning of the administration building of the college to an “experience.”  They ended the piece describing the losses by saying that, “In keeping with that thought the students look upon the loss and inconvenience as a gain in experience.  And look forward with confidence in the future of our college.”[23]  The students mourned the loss of the books and documents, but they did not lament it like they did in 1827.


When it came to the rebuilding process of the college, it is easy to see the college’s motives, ideals, and aspirations by the architectural style of the buildings themselves.  For example, Middle Hall, when it was built in 1845, was purposefully designed as being modest, and yet substantial, but with a “tasteful copula and belfry.”[24]  The college had grown incredibly from the years immediately preceding the fire to 1845.  There were now four faculty members, Richard Ringgold, the principal and professor of Greek and Latin, Franklin Green, professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, the Reverend Clement Jones, professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy, and Peregrine Wroth, professor of law, instead of just one faculty member as it had been for several years under Ringgold’s early leadership.[25]  Furthermore, the college claimed that, “the terms of entrance to the freshman class and the entire curriculum of studies were as high as those prescribed for the best colleges in the United States.”[26]  It must be noted that the new college building was not even attempting to redo the grandeur and glory of the first college building.  It was to be,

A two story brickhouse, sixty feet by forty, a cellar under the whole house to be eight feet high in the clear, four feet of it below and four feet above the ground.  The first story to be twelve feet high in the clear, to have an entry passage through the center of the building twelve feet wide, and two rooms of equal size on each side of the entry, the adjoining rooms to be connected by a large folding or sliding door, and a fireplace in each room.  The second story to be ten feet in the clear and in all respects the same as in the first story.  A stairway from the cellar to the garret.  In the first and second stories the stairways to be in the entry.[27]


Considering that the original building was roughly twice the size as this new building, it would be absurd to think the Board of Visitors and Governors was trying to re-establish Washington to its former glory sixty-three years earlier.  What is now Middle Hall was meant to be modest, sufficient, and practical.  The only extravagant part of the new building, a cupola and lighting rod with a gold point, was added only six months, in June 1844, before the college took possession of the new building.[28]

The college does begin to show some of its future pride in its history once it occupied the new building.  The students, in order to celebrate Washington’s Birthday, put on a light show in the windows of the new building.  They arranged candles in the shape of 1732 in the cupola, a ring of lights in the garret (now the third floor), the word Clio was formed in the windows of the second story, and mathematical figures were arranged on the first floor.  It was reported that the “scene was one of surpassing beauty.[29]”  In the nineteenth century, the building would have more than likely been highly visible from town when lit up, and it is probably the excitement of the new building and pride in being once again on College Hill that inspired them to create such a light show.[30]


The pride the new students showed when celebrating Washington’s birthday in its inaugural year continued to grow thorough the years.  The school was finally becoming proud of who they were and not simply seeing themselves as a means to an end.  When 1918 arrived, the college wanted to rebuild itself in the exact same way it was before the fire struck the first William Smith Hall.  Smith was rebuilt in the exact same way as before with a few minor changes.  With the $50,000 received from the insurance company, and another $3,000 paid to the Board of Visitors and Governors, the college was already well on its way to rebuilding much faster than it took the Washington College of the nineteenth century.[31]  In April, the state granted Washington $48,500 to help rebuild, $28,500 to go to maintenance of the standing heating plant and the rest to help rebuild the Hall.[32]  With all the money aside, it is most striking that the college decided to rebuild William Smith exactly the way it was at its best with three exceptions:  the heating plant was now moved away from the important buildings on campus, another cupola was to be built on William Smith (more closely modeling the original building), and two vaults were added for the safe keeping of valuable documents.[33]  The administration and students alike felt that William Smith Hall was a perfect manifestation of their pride in the college.  It reflected what they needed and how they wanted to look to passersby.


It’s hard to imagine such an important part of ones school catching on fire and destroying much of the college’s present and history, and it’s even harder to imagine how the administration would react to the catastrophe.  Would they panic?  Would they see it as time perfect timing to revamp the college and give it a new image?  Would they flounder as Washington did in 1827?  Or, would they be more like Dr. Cain’s administration in 1916 and simply rebuild exactly the way the college was and continue as if nothing was amiss?  It’s impossible to tell what would happen today, but what is certain is that, when looking back at the following days, weeks, months, and years after the fires, the college’s hopes, ideals, and ambitions come out in how they go about rebuilding.  Washington College in 1827 was overlooked and under funded.  When disaster struck, they almost folded (but not quite).  The 1916 Washington saw their fire and the destruction of their library as unfortunate and somewhat annoying, but in the end another experience to chalk up and prove to the world that they were a force to be reckoned with and NOT be overlooked like they had in the past.  In the eighty-nine years that passed between the two fires the college changed:  it went from being small and on the verge of meltdown to being well known and confident.  Most importantly though, Washington College found it’s identity in the ashes of its fires. 


Board Minutes, May 26, 1916, Miller Library Archives, .Folder: Cain Administration Notes.

Cain, James, M.  “James W. Cain:  A Memoir.”  Nov. 1943.  Miller Library Archives (folder: Cain, James M.-writing), 4.

Dumschott, Fred W.  Washington College. Chestertown:  Washington College, 1980.

“Fire Insurance Paid” The Enterprise, Wednesday, February 23, 1916.

“In an Editorial Way.”  Washington Collegian, February 1916, Miller Library Archives, 14.

Kent County News February 19, 1916, Miller Library Archives, .Folder: Cain Administration Notes.

Kent County News April 8, 1916, Miller Library Archives, .Folder: Cain Administration Notes.

Steiner, Bernard C., History of Education in Maryland.  Washington:  Government Printing Office, 1894.

“The Burning of William Smith Hall.”  Washington Collegian  February 1916.  Miller Library Archives, 6.

The Chestertown Telegraph, 1827-1829.

FIRE! The Chestertown Telegraph, January 12, 1827.

The Chestertown Telegraph, February 2, 1827.

“On the Burning of Washington College, January 11, 1827.” The Chestertown Telegraph, February 9, 1827.

“Washington College” The Chestertown Telegraph, January 22, 1827.

“Washington College”  The Chestertown Telegraph.  March 16, 1827.

Duncan, Joseph M.  “The Burning College.”  The Chestertown Telegraph, April 20, 1827.

“Washington College.”  The Chestertown Telegraph, October 23, 1829.

Washington College Board of Visitors and Governors minutes.  1827-1849.  Miller Library Archives.


[1] Well, in 1827 it was the only building, but that only makes it more substantial of a catastrophe.

[2] FIRE! The Chestertown Telegraph, January 12, 1827.

[3] Board Minutes, Friday, January 12, 1827.

[4] Board Minutes, Saturday, January 13, 1827.

[5] Board Minutes, Monday, January 15, 1827.

[6] Dumschott, Fred W.  Washington College. (Chestertown:  Washington College, 1980), 50.

[7]  The Chestertown Telegraph, February 2, 1827.

[8] Board Minutes, Tuesday, February 4, 1834.

[9] “Washington College” The Chestertown Telegraph, January 22, 1827.

[10] “On the Burning of Washington College, January 11, 1827.” The Chestertown Telegraph, February 9, 1827.

[11] “Washington College”  The Chestertown Telegraph.  March 16, 1827.

[12] A shocking thought for those of us who came to college under the idea that college is more than simply learning to understand Homer or Herodotus.

[13] Duncan, Joseph M.  “The Burning College.”  The Chestertown Telegraph, April 20, 1827.

[14] “Washington College.”  The Chestertown Telegrah, October 23, 1829.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Interestingly enough, William Smith burnt down almost 89 years to the day of the original fire, and in both caught fire in the cellars.

[17] Cain, James, M.  “James W. Cain:  A Memoir.”  Nov. 1943.  Miller Library Archives  (folder: Cain, James M.-writing), 4.

[18] “The Burning of William Smith Hall.”  Washington Collegian  February 1916.  Miller Library Archives,  6.

[19] “Burning of William Smith” Washington Collegian, 6.

[20] The students didn’t seem to mind too much, having the extra break.

[21] “In an Editorial Way.”  Washington Collegian, February 1916, Miller Library Archives, 14.

[22] “In an Editorial Way” Washington Collegian, 15.

[23] “Burning of William Smith” Washington Collegian, 9.

[24] Steiner, Bernard C., History of Education in Maryland.  (Washington:  Government Printing Office, 1894), 88.

[25] History of Education, 90

[26] Ibid.

[27] Board Minutes,  February 12, 1834.

[28] Board Minutes, June, 17, 1844.

[29] I also imagine that the faculty was extremely proud of the students for using intellectual figures to decorate the windows.  It’s doubtful that the students, no matter how geeky they are, would decorate their windows with mathematical figures.  History of Education in Maryland, 90.

[30] The picture of Stepney farm in the entry of Bunting shows the visibility of the college, it is quite probable that Middle would have been just as visible in 1845.

[31] Although I must admit, I’m not entirely sure why the board received the additional $3,000 a few weeks later.  No place seems to specify the reason for the additional money.  Kent County News February 19, 1916, Miller Library Archives, .Folder: Cain Administration Notes.; “Fire Insurance Paid” The Enterprise, Wednesday, February 23, 1916.

[32] Kent County News April 8, 1916, Miller Library Archives, .Folder: Cain Administration Notes

[33] There is something about this college and their love of adding cupolas on top of buildings.  Board Minutes, May 26, 1916, Miller Library Archives, .Folder: Cain Administration Notes.; Dumschott, Washington College, 162.



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