Historic Hilltop disasters

By Charles Milhauser

The April 2006 tornado that did horrific damage to downtown Iowa City and the University of Iowa prompted a search of the Cornell archives for disastrous occurrences.

Evidence that a tornadic eye had passed over the campus was absent, but there were many accounts of wind and lightning damage. King Chapel, with its 130-foot clock tower, was a prime target. In November 1998, powerful winds blew out the southeast clock face. This was found on the ground, but the Roman numerals had been pried off and the hands removed. The college advertised unsuccessfully for their return, “no questions asked.” During an April 1982 storm, shingles dislodged from the Chapel roof smashed some of the colored windows on the west side. On Nov. 30, 1964, College Hall was evacuated at 1:20 p.m. when part of the roof came off during a fierce storm, and on Sept. 22, 1986, lightning destroyed the top of the central chimney of Bowman Hall.

Strong earth tremors have been felt in Mount Vernon on several occasions, and at least 13 earthquakes with epicenters in Iowa have been recorded since 1867.

Periodic floodings of the Cedar River have never threatened the campus because it lies some 400 feet above the river; however, there have been on-campus floods. In 1886, a steam pipe burst in King Chapel, which at that time housed the college’s library on the ground floor. This disaster left “wrinkles on covers of books bound with cloth and a wet look on covers … with leather.” In May 2006, the basement of Law Hall, which houses the college’s main computer facilities, flooded when a large backflow valve failed after the city turned the water back on in a main that had been under repair. Computer services to the campus crashed and were not fully restored until the next day.

The weather was not always to blame. During a musical performance on March 22, 1882, in the Lower Chapel, a portion of the newly plastered ceiling fell, injuring those sitting under it. On Sept. 23, 1941, after most of the student body had packed the bleachers in Ash Park for a panoramic photo of the entire college population, all nine sections of the newly constructed wooden bleachers splintered and collapsed. There were no fatalities, and the insurance reimbursed students for their medical bills. With no humans present on the morning of April 13, 1989, six tall ranges of steel shelving in the basement of Cole Library toppled domino-fashion, ripping electrical connections and dumping hundreds of books. Later that year, on Sept. 25, the ceiling at the north end of the third floor of College Hall fell during the noon hour when, fortunately, no one was there.

The most frequent danger was fire, which led to the installation of fire escapes in 1904. An incinerator fire in Dows Hall on a cold January night in 1967 forced the women residents to evacuate. In April 1972, an overheated flue from a ceramics kiln caused $20,000 worth of damage in Armstrong Hall and destroyed the art department’s slide collection. Cornell’s worst fire occurred Feb. 16, 1924, when a Bunsen burner accidentally left on overnight in the third-floor chemistry laboratory in Old Sem (then called Science Hall) caused a conflagration that gutted the building and left only part of its exterior brick walls.

Most fires in student rooms were put out quickly. An account from a 1908 Cornellian reported that Edna Battin’s hair, “flowing long and loose,” caught fire from an alcohol lamp while she was heating water in her room in Bowman Hall. Her roommate smothered the flames with a towel. The roommate’s name was Carrie Torch.