February 12, 1918
Fire destroyed a large part of the rear wing of Main Building. A defective flue in the kitchen where steaks were being broiled fed the fire upward into the maids’ quarters, where it burst from the walls on the fourth floor and then through the roof. Arriving within ten minutes, the Poughkeepsie Fire Department chopped a hole in the ice covering Sunset Lake to secure a water source. Firemen in the building threw personal effects from student rooms out of windows, and students formed chains from Main to Rockefeller Hall, passing the goods along the lines for safe storage. Student volunteers rescued furniture and records from the offices housed in the building.
A brick firewall separating the rear wing from the main body of the building stopped the fire from spreading, limiting the damage. Most of the students lost very little, and the total damage was estimated at $165,000, $80,000 of which was covered by insurance. Most of the maids, however, lost everything they owned. An emergency fund was set up, and each maid was given $10 cash and a spare set of clothes immediately. Temporary housing for the 75 displaced staff was set up in the Gymnasium.
President MacCracken, who rushed back to campus from New York City—having received a telegram stating that Main Building had been destroyed—praised the Vassar and Poughkeepsie communities for their quick-thinking and teamwork, without which the losses from the fire, he said, would have been much worse.
An anonymous poem in the February 16th issue of the Miscellany News commemorated the students’ efforts:
A filing case of steel it was
Four maidens bore it on
They said with nonchalance, Some load!
And dumped it on the lawn.
Then Prexy called three stalwart men
(He thought 'twould be a cinch)
But when they tried to move it in
It wouldn't budge an inch
And an anonymous student recorded the event in a letter:
“One whole wing is gone. It was a defective flue. The fire was in the east wing, where the assembly hall, dining room, maids’ rooms, etc., were. The maids lost everything. The girls stood in lines and handed things along from Main to Rocky and got a good deal out…. In Davison we got to bed pretty early but heard parts of Main crashing down all through the night.”