The building’s primary construction flaw was that no stairway extended to the first-floor hallway. Instead, the sole exit was a narrow doorway leading from a cloakroom toward an exterior wooden stairwell.

(May 17, 1923). Cleveland Public School was situated in Kershaw County, six miles southeast of Camden. This two-story wooden frame edifice was constructed on acreage donated by the Chestnut family. During the evening of May 17, 1923, a sizable crowd was attending the school’s graduation ceremonies. After receiving their diplomas, the graduating class members were presenting a short comedy, Miss Topsy Turvy, on the stage in the second-floor auditorium. Participants later recalled that more than three hundred persons were in the room, which measured just forty by twenty feet.

The building’s primary construction flaw was that no stairway extended to the first-floor hallway. Instead, the sole exit was a narrow doorway leading from a cloakroom toward an exterior wooden stairwell. Furthermore, the stage was located at the opposite end of the auditorium. The play was in progress when several onlookers noticed that smoke was coming from backstage.

A large oil lamp had been attached by wire to the ceiling, quite close to the curtains. Apparently, intense heat from the burner was scorching the wiring wrapped around the hook. This fixture’s heavy weight ultimately pulled it downward. After the lamp struck the stage floor, its oil spilled in all directions, igniting an intense fire. Terrified spectators rushed toward the cloakroom, and dozens of persons were trampled to death as they congregated at the doorway. Simultaneously, the crowd’s collective weight caused the wooden stairs to collapse. Many victims not hurt during their falls later were injured seriously by falling debris. Others died after being overcome by the thick smoke. Several small children survived by being tossed to onlookers below.

Within an hour the Cleveland School was destroyed totally. Numerous corpses burnt beyond recognition were found amidst the ruins. The official death toll was tabulated at seventy-seven. Approximately twenty-five victims received positive identifications. Because entire families were wiped out, in many cases no survivors could be located to identify the corpses. Unclaimed bodies were interred within a mass grave at the nearby Beulah Methodist Church Cemetery.

Moseley, John Oliver. The Terrible Cleveland Fire: Its Victims and Survivors. Charleston, S.C.: Southern Printing & Publishing, 1923.

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Citation Information

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  • Article Title Cleveland School Fire
  • Author Miles S. Richards
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/cleveland-school-fire/
  • Access Date May 23, 2019
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date April 15, 2016
  • Date of Last Update January 22, 2019