The new Ticonderoga High School was nearly destroyed March 9, 1933, by a roaring fire battled for hours by Ti and Port Henry firefighters. The blaze lit up the night sky for miles.
It was 80 years ago that Ticonderoga’s “proudest possession” was nearly lost.
The new Ticonderoga High School was almost destroyed March 9, 1933, by a roaring fire battled for hours by Ti and Port Henry firefighters.
Ti High had opened to students in March 1930 after being constructed at a cost of $500,000. It was billed as the community’s “proudest possession.” That $500,000 project equates to about $6.9 million today.
The fire caused more than $200,000 in damage and forced students to attend “split” classes at the old school, which was located at the site of the present day Ti EMS building between The Portage and Champlain Avenue. Some classes were moved to churches and other buildings in the community. The $200,000 in damages equals about $3.5 million today.
According to the Ticonderoga Sentinel newspaper, the fire began in a trash chute in the boiler room in the school’s basement.
“A terrific draft swept the flames up the chute like wildfire, and smoke and flames jetting from the wooden cupola atop the building were noticed by a passerby, who turned in the first alarm,” according to the Sentinel.
The fire damaged nearly the entire building.
“The fire consumed the cupola which crashed to the roof of the building,” the Sentinel reported. “The roof ignited immediately and the flames spread to the third floor, which was occupied by the cafeteria, laboratory, study hall, domestic science departments and classrooms. Two high decorative brick walls, extending from the roof, crashed to the already over-laden floors below, carrying the flames to the corridors and rooms on that level.”
Lost in the fire was the school auditorium, which had become a focal point of community events.
“The beautiful auditorium, the costliest and most beautiful feature of the building, is a mass of ruins,” the Sentinel read.
Not all the news was bad. Firefighters were able to save the school’s musical instruments, valued at $1,000, and the school gymnasium was only slightly damaged.
While the fire devastated the community, it also became a rallying point.
“The school system of Ticonderoga was dealt a staggering blow last Thursday morning when the magnificent new high school building in Fourth Street (now Calkins Place) was swept by flames at a loss of nearly $200,000,” the Ticonderoga Sentinel wrote in an editorial after the fire. “Undaunted, however, Ticonderoga will build anew...Ticonderoga has suffered a tremendous blow, but its residents and school authorities have not lost the greatest of all human attributes — courage.”
Work to repair the high school began almost immediately. The goal was to have the school open for classes in September. That didn’t happen. Some students were able to return to the building in January and the high school was completely re-opened March 4, 1934 — five days before the one year anniversary of the blaze.
In less than a year Ticonderoga’s “proudest possession” was fully operational.
At graduation ceremonies in June 1934 students and faculty were honored for enduring the difficulties of the fire.
“This year the graduates and faculty may feel that they have triumphed over severe hardships and difficult handicaps to close out the school year with such a splendidly impressive record,” the Sentinel wrote June 28, 1934. “Hampered because of curtailed class schedules due to the reconstruction of the new school, the commendable results obtained are truly remarkable.”
Bill Dolback, president of the Ticonderoga Historial Society, said the Ti High fire was major event in the community’s history. The school was constructed in the colonial revival style as a tribute to the United States centennial after a long and sometimes heated debate about the best-possible location.
“We’ve always taken pride in our school system,” Dolback said. “Education has always been at the forefront throughout the history of the community.”
Ticonderoga’s first school was constructed in 1792 near Fort Ticonderoga, Dolback said.
John McDonald, today’s Ticonderoga Central School superintendent, said the community’s commitment to education and the high school was obvious during an expansion and renovation project a few years ago.
“During our (renovation) project the architects couldn’t believe the quality put into this building,” McDonald said of the high school. “They agreed the building is so solid it hadn’t moved an inch off its original foundation. It says a lot about the community commitment to the school.”
He noted the detail given to cast iron plates that hold the school auditorium seats in place. Each one is inscribed with “THS.”
“Every item was important,” McDonald said.
Ticonderoga High School was placed on the National Historic Registry in the 1980s.
Evidence of the 1933 fire still remains, although it’s not visible.
“During the construction project they (workers) pulled back some sheet rock and the bricks behind it were black,” McDonald said.
The 1933 Ti High fire was such a major event, the Albany newspaper sent a reporter to town to cover it, then “rushed several hundred extras up here containing news of the disastrous school fire.”
The local Ticonderoga Sentinel didn’t appreciate Albany’s sudden interest in the community, noting the “Albany rag” got the story all wrong. After pointing out a series of mistakes in the Albany report, the Sentinel concluded, “The Albany sheet, however, was correct on one detail. The fire did occur in Ticonderoga!”
While the Ti High blaze was one of the most significant in community history, it was not the largest.
March 31, 1875, much of Ti’s downtown was leveled by fire. Buildings at the intersection of West Exchange Street (now Montcalm Street) and Champlain Avenue fell victim to the blaze. According to Joseph Cook, a Ti community leader at the time, 28 buildings burned.
“Most were older buildings, made of wood and tar,” Dolback said. “Once the fire started it spread quickly. It’s the biggest fire in Ti’s history.”
Ticonderoga suffered through two other major downtown fires. March 18, 1953, the Ticonderoga Inn burned, killing five people, and June 1, 1953, the Burleigh House was destroyed.