Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Hopkins Street School Fire


By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

On the morning of Sunday, April 5, 1959, George and Ellen Henley of 741 Hopkins Street in Southport woke up early to do laundry. Glancing next door, he noticed a red glow coming from the basement of the Hopkins St. School and immediately telephone for the fire department. By the time they arrived shortly after 5 am, the entire north end of the school was engulfed in flames.  

Hopkins St. School was first opened in 1928 to alleviate overcrowding in other Southport schools. The two-story brick schoolhouse had eleven regular classrooms, a laboratory, industrial arts room, home economics room, combination gym and auditorium, and administrative offices. Not one room escaped the fire undamaged.   

Hopkin's Street School
The fire began in the kindergarten in the basement, gutting the classroom before racing up a dumb waiter shaft and open stairway onto the first floor. Flames ate their way through the laboratory and a section of the gymnasium. Although firemen were able to get control of the blaze before it made it to the upper story, every room in the building had smoke or water damage. All of the desks and books in the kindergarten were completely destroyed and much of the material elsewhere were made unusable. 

Basement kindergarten classroom, before & after the fire.


There was one thing which was saved: the flag! As firefighters worked to control the blaze, 14-year-old Dean Pappas waited anxiously behind the firetrucks. It was his job each day to raise and lower the school’s flags. As soon as the firefighters gave the okay, he ran into the building to retrieve the American flag as well as the school’s safety flag. Both were smoke damaged, but salvageable. Dean made the papers.

Dean Pappas with the rescued flags.

The former student who put me on to the story claimed that the fire was caused by arson, but I could find no evidence of that in the papers. It was thought to be electrical in nature. Interestingly enough, the school had recently been evaluated for risk by fire and insurance inspectors. In their report, which had been presented on March 24th, they urged the school board to install fire doors in the stairwells to slow the progress of fire between floors. The Board of Education never got a chance to act on their incredibly prescient recommendations.


The fire exacerbated the overcrowding in the city’s schools. Three-hundred and fifty students were displaced. They were sent to Hardy School at Lyon and Perine Streets. In order to accommodate the extra children, the school schedule was arranged so Hardy School students attended class from 8:15am to 12:15, while the Hopkins St. students attended from 12:30 to 4:30pm. The Elmira City School District put $127,480 into renovating and expanding the Hopkins St. School. It opened again for students on January 25, 1960.

Principal Martha Kime and Arthur Goodwin, district director of buildings & grounds, inspect the new furniture

3 comments:

  1. The fire was an arson and two young men were arrest tried and sent off to reform schools. It was different to attend school only in the afternoon, but the renovations at Hopkins ST. School were great. Got to finish 8th grade there and moved over to the brand new Broadway School for 9th grade.

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  2. That’s my Daddy saving the flag!!!!!

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  3. I remember the fire well. After returning to Hopkins St and even with all the restoration the books still smelled of smoke. Hopkins St was a good school.

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