The Barracks Fire of 1871


The destroyed roof and upper floor of the barracks can be seen in this photo taken on 6 February 1871, a day after the fire, by Ordinance Officer John Pitman, then an Assistant Instructor at the Academy. The fire began in the large room directly over the sally port. The heavily damaged 4th Division is just to the right of the sally port. The West Point Hotel can be seen in the background across the Plain. (photo courtesy of USMA Library Special Collections and Archives)

At around 2 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, February 5, 1871, cadets were awoken by a long roll of the drums, meaning everyone was to form up in the Area immediately. The barracks were on fire! The flames had started in the Dialectic Hall, a multi-story room directly over the sally port that allowed passage from the Area to the Plain, and soon reached the roof and fourth-floor rooms. Quickly the blaze spread east and west along the roof and smoke filled the top-floor rooms occupied mostly by plebes.

Cadets swiftly sprang into action with hand- and steam-powered fire engines, but the extreme cold and a stiff wind caused the valves to freeze. Bucket brigades were formed and cadets carried snow and water to the 3rd floor and higher stairways and threw water up to fight the flames and to protect the lower floors. The walls and windows of the building were soon covered in thick slabs of ice. As the water fell back down from the buckets, cadets became so encrusted with ice that one was able to stand up his overcoat the next morning in the mess hall and place his cap on top.

During the fire, some plebes were trapped in their rooms and were rescued either by ladder or by cadets linking arms and going room-to-room in the dense smoke. Amazingly, no lives were lost, but there were reports of frozen noses and ears and some cadets lost nearly all their possessions. The unfortunate were later compensated by Congress for destroyed items.

The fire engines were eventually thawed out and helped to bring the conflagration under control about three hours after it began. Cadets were aided by volunteers from elsewhere on post. For much of the next day the roof smoldered as cadets from the cockloft found other rooms to live in temporarily. Luckily, the rooms on the third floor and below were habitable and life returned to normal quickly. Although accounts vary, it looks like classes resumed on the second day after the fire. The 4th Division, directly adjacent to the Dialectic Hall, was the most impacted area. In total, the fire damage was assessed at $50,000. The cause of the fire remains unknown.

Contents contributed by Dr. Jon Malinowski, Professor of Geography, and Alicia Mauldin Ware, Archives Curator.