Ellen G. White: The Early Elmshaven Years: 1900-1905 (vol. 5)


Chapter 16—The Review and Herald Fire

It was Tuesday, December 30, 1902, a quiet winter evening in Battle Creek. No snow was on the ground. Most of the three hundred employees of the Review and Herald publishing house had left their machines and editorial offices for the day. A few workers had come in for the night shift. Elder Daniells, the newly elected leader of the General Conference, was still in his office on the second floor of the West Building, just across North Washington Street. A little after six o'clock Elder I. H. Evans, president and general manager of the Review and Herald Publishing Company, and Elder E. R. Palmer had met with him to look over some new tracts in preparation. At seven-twenty Palmer left, and Daniells and Evans were chatting. 5BIO 223.1

It had been a good year for the Review and Herald—one of the most prosperous. There were bright prospects for a busy 1903, also (RH Supplement, April 28, 1903). 5BIO 223.2

The Tabernacle bell rang, summoning the faithful to prayer meeting. Then the electric lights went out. Daniells stepped over to the window and saw flames coming from the publishing house. 5BIO 223.3

A few minutes before, all had been normal in the big building. The night watchman had just made his rounds through the engine room. Then the few employees at work detected the smell of smoke. Immediately the lights throughout the plant went out, leaving everything in total darkness. The dense, oily smoke that filled the building with incredible speed forced everyone to leave hastily; even now some found the stairways cut off and took to the fire escapes. All the workers got out, but one just barely made it, crawling through smoke-filled rooms to safety. The fire alarm had been turned in at the first detection of the emergency. 5BIO 223.4

When Elders Daniells and Evans reached the street, the whole pressroom was in flames. A minute or two later fire engines from the city fire department arrived and soon were pouring water onto the blaze. The whole building seemed engulfed. At no place could any fireman enter it. To check the fire was futile. All could see that the flames were beyond control. Nothing could be saved from the editorial offices or library, but Brother Robert of the art department saved a few pieces of furniture and some precious art materials. 5BIO 224.1

It was now a little past seven-thirty; the firemen directed their efforts toward saving the two-story West Building across the street, and the stores on the east side of the Review plant. Fortunately, the breeze was from the southwest, and the smoke and flames were blown across Main Street into McCamly Park. At eight o'clock the roof fell in, and the machinery on the upper floors began to tumble. By eight-thirty the brick-veneer walls were collapsing. 5BIO 224.2

Although there were a number of employees at work throughout the building, none had seen the fire start; but it was generally agreed that it had begun in the basement in the original engine room, under the dynamo room. The first published report of the fire said: 5BIO 224.3

The very day on which it occurred the chief of the city fire department, in company with the office electrician, made a tour of inspection throughout the building, examining the wiring for the lights and other possible sources of danger, and pronounced everything in satisfactory condition.—Ibid., January 6, 1903. 5BIO 224.4

This was done in consideration of the renewal of the insurance on January 1. 5BIO 224.5

Fire Chief Weeks, who had directed the fighting of a number of big fires in Battle Creek, was later to declare that he had fought every one of the Adventist fires and his score was zero.“‘There is something strange,’” he said, “‘about your SDA fires, with the water poured on acting more like gasoline.’”—P. B. Fairchild to Arthur L. White, December 4, 1965. 5BIO 224.6

The Review and Herald publishing plant had grown to be one of the largest and best-equipped publishing establishments in the State of Michigan. Now it was just a pile of rubble. Why? 5BIO 224.7

As some of the board members stood and watched the flames, there must have come to their minds one sentence in a letter from Ellen White, written from California and addressed to the manager of the Review and Herald. It had been read to the board thirteen months earlier: “I have been almost afraid to open the Review, fearing to see that God has cleansed the publishing house by fire.”—Testimonies for the Church 8:91. 5BIO 225.1