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Local Film and Multimedia Project Illuminate the Collinwood Fire


Published October 26, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 26, 2016 at 1:24 p.m.


On March 4, 1908, the Lake View School in Collinwood, Ohio, went up in flames. Of the approximately 370 people inside, 172 children and one teacher were killed. That story forms the core of the animated film "The Collinwood Fire," which screened last Friday as part of the Vermont Filmmakers' Showcase at the Vermont International Film Festival.

There it received two awards: the Zero Gravity Award for the "most innovative film" and the Footage Farm USA Award for the "most creative use of archival footage."

While people without ties to the Cleveland area may never have heard of this tragedy, the six-minute film is the fruit of a local collaboration. Directed by Middlebury College animation instructor Daniel Houghton, it represents the culmination of research by Midd American studies professor Michael Newbury and serves as one entry point to a much larger web-based platform.

Part historical resurrection, part pedagogical experiment, Newbury's collinwoodfire.org seeks to engage its viewers — particularly students — in a highly detailed multimedia experience. The site offers a thoroughly researched portrait not only of a specific disaster, but of how the media and the public shaped the stories that arose from it.

Newbury, whose courses include "The Imagination of Disaster," sees the Collinwood fire as representative of "a moment in urban industrial history" when industry-related accidents occurred with tremendous frequency, he says. In that era, the Cleveland suburb was characterized by its flourishing rail yard and the economy that sprouted from it — saloons and watering holes, immigrant laborers, smokestacks, and environmental degradation.

From its opening, Houghton's film emphasizes the connection between those economic conditions and the media, particularly newspapers. As a streetcar zooms toward the plume of the burning Lake View School, featherlight newsprint pages catch the wind. Newbury's website points out that the number of American daily papers grew fourfold from 1870 to 1900.

Stories are often said to "catch like wildfire," and both Houghton and Newbury explore the relevance of that metaphor to the literal blaze. The website asserts, "The narrative of the fire went up in flames one day only to be reborn like a phoenix the next." The film sweeps through the burning building's interior, where the walls are revealed to be papered in newsprint.

Houghton took creative license with that detail, as he did in presenting the school as a dramatically open space. "I kind of fell in love with the notion that, by building an unreal space, you could get closer to the space that people imagined," he says.

The film is not easy to watch. The animation successfully evokes the horrific reality of nearly 200 children trapped and dying in a building recklessly designed like a furnace. As the shock fades, however, viewers can turn to the website to gain a greater understanding of the stories that proliferated after the fire.

Newbury's texts and ample archival material offer tales of heroism and villainy. Commentators on the tragedy, for example, put forward the school's all-female teachers as noble exemplars of white Protestant femininity, despite evidence to the contrary. The school's janitor, Swiss-German immigrant Fritz Hirter, was initially blamed for the blaze. In one cinematic embellishment, student Glenn Sanderson was reported to have swung from a third-floor chandelier in a vain attempt at escape.

"I wanted the website to have a feeling of vastness about it," Newbury says. "I wanted it to feel like a place you could get experientially lost in." It certainly does. Using the film as a reference point, historical spelunkers can explore a wealth of information that ranges from the hyper-specific to the abstract. Newspaper clippings, for example, give way to ruminations on the theories of Walter Benjamin and the origins of the cinematic spinning-headline cliché.

Through thoughtful research and creative engagement, Houghton and Newbury have reinvigorated the study of events both forgotten and sordid. What are the merits of reliving such tragedy? Above all, Newbury hopes the platform will emerge as a significant teaching tool in the digital era. His goal, he says, is to make collinwoodfire.org "irresistibly teachable," and to reshape academic approaches to history in the process.