Laura Thomas

Instructor, Senior Teaching Appointment

At 11:58 p.m. on May 8, 1970, a University police officer called in a fire burning at Old Main. The blaze, which started in the basement, soon consumed the 92-year-old structure. Stymied by an inadequate water supply, firefighters were unable to save one of the institution’s first two buildings. The English department’s first home was lost to an arson that remains unsolved.

Although those responsible were never identified, speculation has swirled around the burning of Old Main since then. Local lore suggests that the fire was connected to escalating “student unrest” that year. That someone set a fire at the ROTC Firing Range the same night stoked rumors that Old Main might have been the target of antiwar activists.

Anti-war and civil rights demonstrations proliferated on campus and in Fort Collins in 1970. Notable among them were a two-day student strike held on campus May 7 & 8. Just a few days before, Ohio National Guard shot 15 students at Kent State University during a protest, killing four of them.

During the 1969-70 academic year at CSU, the Black Student Alliance and Union of Mexican-American Students led demonstrations and boycotts to advance their demand for equity. Some of these resulted in heated, if not violent exchanges with counter protestors.

 

The remains of Old Main, the day after the fire
The remains of Old Main, the day after the fire

 

The loss of Old Main was mourned, but the building itself was in rough shape by 1970. Additions did not cohere with its original Victorian architecture. A damp basement storage area infested with silverfish necessitated sealing Old Main off for two days of fumigation in 1966. And it was known to be a fire hazard. Upon his retirement in 1969, CSU president William E. Morgan, in fact, had planned to lead a campaign to render it “fireproof” and turn it into a museum.

After the fire, the remains were torn down. In 1990-91, despite some resistance, the space Old Main once occupied between Spruce Hall and the South College Gymnasium became a parking lot. It seemed that the place where R.J. Wattles’ Drama Club once strode the stage and Alfred Westfall’s Scribblers and debaters met to practice their language arts would live only in memory.

old main snow

In 1992, however, Old Main, or at least several of its bricks, gained new life when the Vietnam Era Memorial Bridge was constructed. The bridge was built across Arthur Ditch on the northwest side of campus near the Lory Student Center as an act of healing of the wounds from that war left on the nation and campus.

Led by CSU graduate Terry Finnagan (’74), a campaign to build a monument that would foster a spirit of reconciliation collected private funds for the bridge, which was designed by Professor Kai-ho Mah. Construction management faculty and student volunteers built it with local limestone and some salvaged Old Main bricks.

At an emotional dedication ceremony, former US Senator, presidential candidate, and antiwar activist George McGovern called for “healing at a time when these virtues are desperately needed.” Peter C. Lemon, a 1979 CSU graduate, Vietnam veteran, and Medal of Honor winner noted that “war never ends for a combat veteran.” The ceremony concluded with Vietnam veterans, former antiwar activists, and members of the CSU community solemnly crossing the bridge together.

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