LYONS — At 5:15 p.m. Tuesday church bells will ring downtown, not for the upcoming Christmas holiday but for a more somber reason — the 100th anniversary of the Lyons Union School fire that killed two young girls and destroyed the school.
It will be exactly 100 years to the time when a fast-moving blaze tore through the William Street building, trapping and killing 12-year-old Helen Baltzel and 13-year-old Elizabeth Burns. The fire ravaged the school building, causing $300,000 in damage, according to old news clippings. Another Lyons resident, Jacob Keller, also died — “overcome by excitement of the fire and fell dead of heart disease. On his return home he was telling members of his family of what had occurred, when he toppled over.”
Scott Bailey of Lyons and Eric Lewis of Geneva, a sixth-grade teacher in Lyons, are both history buffs who have been researching the fire’s history. They had hoped to curate an exhibit at the school to mark the event’s 100th anniversary, but the pandemic scuttled those plans and they are now looking ahead to the 100th anniversary in 2022 of the building that replaced the razed school, built on the same spot and still used today for grades K-6. It is the third school to call that location home.
Still, they feel the centennial of the fire itself is worth noting.
“It was a catastrophic event in Lyons,” said Bailey, who has myriad newspaper clippings from Batavia to the west and Ogdensburg to the east to back up that claim. Lewis added it’s part of the cultural memory of Lyons, with stories from students at that time passed down to their children.
“It’s definitely a part of the history of this village,” he said, mentioning both the loss of life and loss of the community’s school building.
Newspaper accounts note 12 girls were playing volleyball on the third floor when the fire apparently broke out in the store room of the second-floor cloak room. Some accounts blame a cigarette discarded in a wastebasket.
Stephen Wolfe, 13, discovered the blaze and was able to lead 11 girls to safety, according to one newspaper account.
“Helen Baltzel and Elizabeth Burns were seen to rush for the main stairway, which by this time was in flames from top to bottom. Despite the warning shrieks of their playmates, the two girls were seen to disappear in the smoke. Nothing has been seen of them since.
“The only cool head present, young Wolfe, first ushered six of the 11 remaining girls to the fire escape and started them down. He returned to find the remaining five running this way and that to discover a way out. These five also the youth showed the way to the fire escape, then descended himself.”
One article noted that had the blaze broke out when school was in session, the death toll likely would have been 200 students instead of two. The fire spread to the roofs of three churches on the same block.
A contributing factor to the fast-moving fire was the fact the wooden floors were oiled with linseed oil. This fire prompted a statewide review of this policy. An article in the Newark Union Gazette carried the headline “Oiled floors a menace to schoolchildren” and went on to report that “ ... within 15 minutes after the fire was discovered the whole inside was a flaming mass ... and within an hour the roof fell.”
The Lyons community was left without a place to educate its children.
“They had to start school again after the holidays,” said Bailey, noting the Elks Club, hospital, courthouse, Ohmann Theater, churches and private residences offered space for classes.
“Originally there was talk of sending kids to other school districts but then they didn’t need to do that,” said Bailey.
The two girls who died were friends and a joint funeral was held for them. They are buried near each other in Elmwood Cemetery and their pictures still hang in the current school.
Lewis hopes to involve students in putting together an exhibit that honors this event, as well as the construction of the school’s replacement, which opened in 1922.
“This story has been passed down from generation to generation within the school and the community,” he said. “That shows us it’s a really important story there.”