Tag Archives: metallurgy department

Flashback Friday: Unexpected Change: Fire at the Metallurgy Building

The Metallurgy Building on fire, March 15, 1923.

For this week’s Flashback Friday we’re remembering how quickly change can happen overnight, sometimes when you least expect it.

 The early 20th century Michigan Tech campus looked vastly different than it does today, not only in terms of the courses and degrees it offers, but its physical landscape. Many of the earliest buildings on campus are gone, lost to changes in the needs of the university or unexpectedly by disaster. Today marks the 96 anniversary of the fire that destroyed one such building.
Metallurgical building at the Michigan College of Mines.

On this date (March 15) in 1923 fire blazed through the metallurgy building at the Michigan College of Mines. According to a report in The Michigan College of Mines Alumnus from that year, students who arrived first on scene were credited with saving much of the valuable equipment inside the building. First responders reported that the fire appeared to be contained on the second floor of the building, but “minutes later the fire broke out over the whole building.” The Houghton and Hancock fire departments arrived on scene, but by then the fire had spread “into the walls and ventilation ways.”

It was clear that the building was going to be a total loss ($250,000) and not just in terms of the classroom and office space. Students lost personal possessions, records and data for experiments were destroyed, and one particular professor lost a decades worth of research notes. In its wake, classes were moved to the Chemistry Building (which had incidentally burned in 1920) and the department was forced to conduct work “with make-shift apparatus.”

Metallurgy building after the fire, 1923.

However, by September 1923, the Alumnus reported that plans for rebuilding the metallurgy building were underway and by January 1925 the publication was asking alumni to weigh in on a name for the new structure. The new metallurgy building opened for students, faculty, and staff later that year and christened McNair Hall, the college’s former president who died tragically in an accident in 1924. While this building bears the same name as a current resident hall at Michigan Tech, these were two distinct buildings.

McNair Hall. This building replaced the Metallurgy Building.
Regardless of which building it has occupied, since the establishment of the Michigan Mining School in 1885, metallurgy in one shape or form has been integral to this campus. It has evolved from mineral dressing to metallurgy, to metallurgical engineering, to metallurgical and materials engineering, before finally becoming the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in 2000.
Building disasters and failures like the one at the metallurgy building show how change can happen in a blink of an eye. Luckily no one was harmed and rebuilding happened in its wake. It’s a reminder that our landscapes can change quickly, that they aren’t always able to be thoughtfully planned, but even with unexpected change this campus and community continues to grow and evolve.
If you would like to know more about the metallurgy building fire, visit the Michigan Tech Archives during our regular research hours, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. or contact us directly by phone at (906) 487-2505 or email at copper@mtu.edu