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GEARY: Central School's history includes several destructive fires

• Sep 28, 2018 at 1:00 PM

With the arrival of September and the start of fall, our attention also turns to a new school year. One local facility with a long and rich history is Central School, which became the Grand Haven community’s fourth school.

The first school was built in 1836 and was located at 18 S. Second St., behind where the Tri-Cities Historical Museum stands today. It was a one-room schoolhouse and the teacher was Mary A. White, known as Grand Haven’s first teacher.

The second school, built in 1851, stood between Franklin and Clinton, on the west side of First Street. It was a two-story structure with the younger students taught downstairs and the older ones upstairs. Sometimes referred to as the Village School, it also functioned as a church, meeting house, and the County Courthouse until 1857 when a new courthouse was constructed.

As the lumber era boomed, the local population continued to grow rapidly, and by the late 1850s the need for another school was felt. The area’s third school, Union School, was built in 1860 near the northeast corner of Clinton and Sixth streets. Union School was also sometimes referred to as the Clinton Street School or as the Little White School House. Also a two-story building, Union School had several classrooms and housed students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

It wasn’t long before Union School could no longer house the continued growth of the student population. In May 1870, a contract was signed to build the new Central School at a cost of approximately $47,000. It was to be located on one of the city’s highest points, at the southeast corner of Franklin and Sixth streets. The three-story brick school would be topped by a cupola, said to have risen to a height of 125 feet above ground level. When completed, the school was one of the most visually prominent buildings in the area.

While the exterior was constructed of stone and brick, Central School’s floors, hallways, classrooms, staircases and seats were all made from wood, a fact that would play a crucial role in its future.

Central School opened to the public on July 3, 1871. The building held 11 classrooms for students in grades 5-12, while students in grades K-4 would be housed at Union School. Originally, the younger students met on the upper floors until a fatal fall by a young student down the open stairwell. The tragic accident led the principal and staff to relocate the younger students to the lower level of the building and to move the older students to the upper levels.

With a wooden interior, the threat of fire at Central School was constant. On Saturday, Dec. 26, 1891, late at night, a local resident noticed flames inside the school. The fire department quickly responded and found that the fire hydrants were not working. The Wiley Water Works was summoned and pressure was restored. When the fire was put out, the school suffered considerable damage, but was not destroyed.

Ten years later, Central School again caught fire. At about 8:30 in the evening of March 5, 1901, a neighbor near the school noticed fire and notified the authorities. Blizzard conditions and frozen pipes thwarted the firefighters’ efforts to put out the blaze and, within two hours, the school stood completely gutted.

Suspicions that both the 1891 and 1901 fires were the work of arson have circulated for many years, but the exact causes of the fires were never discovered.

In 1902, a much larger Central School was built in the same location. This brick and stone three-story building was topped by a bell tower, which could be seen all over town. The new school housed 600 students, grades K-12, and the older students were taught on the third floor.

Tragedy struck the school for the third time in the winter of 1963. A small fire started on Sunday, Jan. 27, and was put out by the school’s custodian, who believed the issue had been handled. Unfortunately, the fire continued to smolder in the school’s duct work and, early the next morning, it burst into life.

A WGHN radio report stated that the small fire would delay the start of classes, but not long after, area residents could see a glow in the sky in the direction of the school. Fears grew that the fire could spread to neighboring homes. Fire crews stayed on duty all day and even into the next morning. So much water was pumped into the school that it resembled a huge ice sculpture. Although a total loss, the entire community was grateful that there was no loss of life.

Temporary classrooms were set up in local churches until a new school could be built.

The third Central School was dedicated in the fall of 1965. The school, with seven classrooms, a library and a gymnasium, would eventually hold more than 200 students, grades K-6.

In the early 2000s, a decision was made to combine the students at Central with those at Mary A. White Elementary. Central School then became a center for alternative education.

To learn more about our area’s fascinating history, be sure to stop in at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum, 200 Washington Ave.

— By Kevin Geary
, curator of education
 for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum


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