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Fourth Street High School

Fourth Street High School
During the past 200 years of Salem history, many memorable buildings have been erected and then eventually torn down. One of the grandest and most impressive structures – probably the one having the greatest effect on the largest number of people – was the huge, red schoolhouse on E. Fourth St. called Fourth Street School (1897-1974). With its special architecture, this building was a world unto itself – mammoth, unique, proud, secure, warm and alive.

It was erected to replace the first Fourth Street High School, which served from 1860 to 1896. W. C. Wilkins, from Pittsburgh, had the lowest bid - $43,500. Work began in the fall of 1896, soon after the 1860 building was razed. Before the new building was completed, however, Wilkins failed financially, and the Mercantile Trust Co. ended up finishing construction. Forty people were employed at the site – 17 bricklayers, nine carpenters and 14 laborers. Brick for the school came from Canton.

On Oct. 6, 1896, elaborate ceremonies were held for laying the cornerstone (southeast corner) and placing the time capsule, which was a 37½-pound copper box made by the W. H. Mullins Co. There was a parade through town, with the Quaker City Band, Knights of Templar and many visiting delegations participating. The time capsule would be opened on July 22, 1974 (the year the building was razed). Most of its contents, along with the cornerstone, are now preserved at the Salem Historical Museum.

Opening of the school was delayed until Oct. 9 1897, with only the first floor being available. It was not until Nov. 15 that the high school was able to move into its new quarters upstairs. Dedication of the new building took place on Nov. 25, 1897, with an overflowing crowd packing the auditorium. (Prospect School was dedicated the same day but the crowds were not nearly as large.) There were speeches and musical selections before the keys were presented to the School Board.

During the afternoon, there was a constant stream of over 3,000 visitors going through the “magnificent new house that would provide a high education for children.” On the first floor were eight classrooms, a library and the superintendent’s office. On the second floor were six rooms, plus the auditorium that took up the west half of the floor. It seated 682 people, exclusive of the gallery and two bay windows, which could accommodate 300 more.

Hanging on a heavy wooden framework in the new tower was the large bell (cast by the A. Fulton Co. of Pittsburgh, Pa.) taken from the tower of the old building. Also placed in the tower was a telescope. The bell would be removed from the tower around 1926 because of its weight. It now serves as the SHS Victory Bell at Reilly Stadium.

In 1897, Fourth Street School was considered to be “among the first in the state in architecture, design, modern conveniences and durability.” Visitors to the open house that November afternoon came away proud and pleased at what they saw – “A splendid schoolhouse” like nothing they had ever seen before. Built to last for centuries, it would be allowed to stand for only 77 years.

Three years after the schoolhouse was erected, on July 11, 1900, a terrific electrical and rain storm hit the Salem area. Lightning struck the structure around 9 p.m. The huge tower, which was about 187 feet from the ground and surrounded a heavy iron flag pole 25 feet in length, was damaged extensively. Atop the pole was a large copper ball, and this is where the lightning struck. There was extensive damage throughout the building, but it did not catch fire. The loss was covered by three insurance companies.

In 1917, after Salem had constructed a separate high school building, Fourth Street School was used for grade levels one through eight. Junior high classes were held on the second floor, which previously had been used for high school classes. Few buildings come along in a lifetime that make such deep impressions on so many people as did Fourth Street School. Its personality is part of everyone who ever walked on its bare wooden floors, studied, played or worked there.

Memories are as numerous and varied as the minutes of time students spent there during the 77 years of its existence. Here are some of them:

* The huge, ornate twin chimneys at each end of the building, reaching 80 feet into the sky and serving as part of the original toilet system…the grandiose staircase with the divider in the middle and a landing halfway to the second floor.

* The windowed rotunda on the main floor…speaking tubes going from the superintendent’s office to all classrooms…fire drills with Walter Regal playing happy piano music when students re-entered the building…the Quakerette junior high school annual publication…nicknames like Flash, Dynamite, Bubbles, Showboat, Toots, Whiz, Gramps, Pip Squeak and Weasel…students having birthdays bringing lollypops for everyone in the class.

* Valentine’s Day when students pasted frilly white paper dollies on hearts of red construction paper for valentines and depositing them in a large decorated box…lunch time when everyone went home, ate, and then visited mom-and-pop stores for penny candy…the bell in the huge tower, which rang to call children to school…afternoons filled with the music of serenades, overtures, marches and waltzes coming from the basement orchestra room.

* The wire gadget that held five pieces of chalk for drawing lines on the blackboard for music bars...the little pitchpipe used by the teacher to start students off singing during music period...the stoker-fired boilers that provided heat to classrooms, each of which had a crude damper for controlling room temperature...pole swings (called "Giant Strides") on the playground...the handbell used by the custodian to call students in from recess...marble tournaments held on the dirt playground for class and school championships.

* Glass ink wells at each chalk erasers outside on the fire escape…mackinaws and snowsuits hanging on hooks in the cloakroom…high-top shoes with cleats, and a little pocket on the side for a penknife…Armistice Day when shop whistles blew for one minute, and students stood, facing east and remaining silent in honor of those who died in World War I.

When demolition of the building began in 1974, the first chimney was toppled – but not easily – by cables attached to heavy mobile equipment on the ground. A second was brought down by blows from a heavy steel ball, swung from a boom. Soon, the west side of the building was gone. Weeks later, the last truckload of debris would depart from the vacated site. Salem’s most impressive symbol of education was now but a memory – gone but not forgotten.
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Historic resources gathered from various public sources. Special thanks to the Salem Historical Society.
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