In the early-morning hours of May 27, 1912, fire ripped through Old Main, reducing one of the A&M College’s first campus building to little more than a charred brick facade.
As the flames spread and fire crews leapt into action to salvage what they could, student reporters were on the scene to document the damage. The Battalion was a weekly publication at the time, so when the paper went to press four days later, its pages contained a detailed account of what survived and what was consumed by the blaze. “Main Building burns,” the headline read. “Library a total loss.”
At the time of the fire, Old Main was a multi-purpose structure, containing administrators’ offices, club meeting rooms, shops, academic records and much of the college’s collection of books, periodicals and other publications. According to The Battalion’s report, the destruction of the materials housed in Old Main’s library was a major blow to the College, second only to the irreversible damage inflicted on the structure itself.
“There were many books of history, literature, art and biography which can not be replaced and which were priceless, and many books of literature in the original German and French,” the article read.
Complete collections of Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly and Popular Science Monthly were also turned to ash, along with files of daily newspapers from around Texas and an extensive collection of government publications, including records of the Civil War.
The building’s armory was also laid to waste, resulting in the destruction of 300 rifles and a stockpile of field equipment used by the Corps of Cadets during practice marches. While The Battalion lists this as a $5,000 loss, the report also points out that the contents of the armory were completely insured, as per the U.S. War Department’s requirement.
Though the intensity of the flames on Old Main’s third and fourth floors made salvage efforts impossible, not everything was doomed to go up in smoke. According to The Battalion’s report, “practically everything” from the lower two floors was saved, including academic records, furniture and taxidermied longhorns.
“When it was certain that the building could not be saved, everyone was called from the work of fire-fighting and put to rescuing the official records and other valuable property,” the article reads.
Though no one was injured during the blaze, The Battalion’s report mentions that one student had a close call with a falling ember. No classes were cancelled as a result of the fire.
In the evening, when the flames had died down, cadets got back to work, tearing down the walls of Old Main that seemed most likely to topple over.
“Although they swayed in the breeze like reeds, the work was one of great difficulty,” the article reads. “Various means — rifles, cannon and dynamite — were used until the walls which were in greatest danger of falling were leveled, the others being left till later.”
Soon after, the site would be completely cleared, and in 1914, A&M’s Academic Building would take Old Main’s place in the heart of campus.
The Battalion’s account of the fire closes with a brief reflection on what the loss of Old Main meant to Aggies on campus that year, recounting the surreal experience of seeing a campus landmark reduced to rubble.
“Today the Main Building is a collection of blackened walls, heaps of crumbled brick and fallen plaster,” the article reads. “It is hard for the cadet corps to realize that it is no more. Only the passing by it on the way to classes and the meal formations, which occur at the original place in front of the ruins, bring home with shocking force the fact that it [is] a thing of the past.”