Before 1883 when Indiana University was still located near what is now Seminary Square, Professor Theophilus A. Wylie and his son, Brown, installed a telephone wire that ran from the University to Wylie House. We know from the Wylie family letters that Theophilus was very excited by the telephone and regularly used it to call the college. On the night of July 12, 1883, the main academic and laboratory building at the Seminary Square location burned to the ground. Initially, it was believed that the telephone wire from Wylie House to the University had caused the fire.
In a letter to her husband dated July 14, 1883, Theophilus’s daughter, Louisa Boisen, wrote:
“My dearest Hermann,
I sent you a letter yesterday morning telling you about the fire. This morning it seems to me that I feel even worse than yesterday. It is thought that the lightning entered by Brown’s telephone wire and that of course makes us all feel dreadfully. If Brown was careful to shut off the connection before he left I don’t see how it could be unless as Pa says it may have been near enough to the lightning rod to jump from it to the wire. I do hope that Brown did attend to it, but yet others used the wire and if it was used during the vacation perhaps he left it to them to attend to it. Pa feels terribly about it. He says it almost crushes him. . . Then too what will be the consequence of it all? Won’t this be the opportunity for those who seem to desire it, to get rid of the Laboratory? . . . It is very sad to go over there and see the leaves of books scattered all about, many just burnt around the edges. . . The blackened remains are shoveled out when they can do it but even now they are blazing some and the smoke still goes up though we had a hard storm last night again. A great deal of rain fell and there was a great deal of thunder and lightning. . . The wall towards College Avenue was left entire yesterday but last night it was blown down, as were the other walls, but it is too hot for them to work inside yet. I suppose there are some valuable remains there. Poor Dr. Jordan loses all his fishes—the work of his lifetime. Spangler and Conger I suppose left many things in their room. . . Dr. Van Nuys lost a valuable microscope. Pa lost a good many things I believe. But I have not heard him speak of his own particular loss. He said this morning that he hardly felt as if he could survive. He feels the public loss so much and then he grieves so about the way it probably happened. If Brown can only write that he shut off the connection, I think it will make Pa feel better to think that it was not thro’ any carelessness. . . It is too sad, for it will be long before such a library can be gathered and many books can never be replaced and then they had much fine apparatus….”
The Indiana University Archives is fortunate to have extensive diaries kept by Theophilus Wylie. On June 15th Professor Wylie wrote:
“1 Cor. III. 12-15 –The Foundation & the Hilding. — Miserrimus sum [I am very miserable].Last Thursday (12 ) night — about 10 O’C the college bell range the alarm of fire. I immediately ran through the rainstorm — & found the New College building on fire. The fire had been smoldering for some time before it was notir’ed & the building was filled with smoke, — & could not be entered. — for a time it was thought that it might have been controlled, but the flames got the better of the exertions made– & the building with all its contents save a few of the tables of the Museum was destroyed. — The prin Library — the large & valuable Museum– Dr Jordan’s fishes & specimens — & library, Mr Gelbut’s Panama work — all the apparatus in my rooms, All the Laboratories and their contents — all Spangler’s things & perhaps Congers – were utterly destroyed. — The fire seemed to have originated in my room. Thus I will be more implicated perhaps than any other, as the occasion of the loss. — I feel that it is more than I can bear. Miserere nosti0 Deus Salvator! [Take pity on us, 0 Lord Our Savior!]
However, by July 20 when Louisa wrote again to her husband, she reported that: “They don’t think now that the fire kindled from the telephone wire. They think it came down the cupola into the hall where it was burning when the door was broken open. It is hard to tell. Dr. Van N. says such a stroke as that would have melted the wire.”
This new information about the fire likely helped to ease Theophilus Wylie’s sense of guilt, but he remained deeply saddened by the loss of the academic building and its contents. It was feared that the University would be moved from Bloomington to another part of the state, but the citizens of Monroe County pledged $50,000 to the University. Dunn’s Woods was purchased to be the new site of the campus where it remains today.
-Allison Haack, Graduate Student Volunteer