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Moab Historic Happenings May 2004

Early Moab school building met a fiery demise in 1967
by Jeff Richards

On a Monday afternoon 37 years ago, a 63-year-old landmark that had been one of Moab’s oldest school buildings was completely destroyed by fire. Students and townspeople formed a remarkable brigade and managed to save 14,000 books in 15 minutes, before the flames spread to the library portion of the building.
The incident occurred on May 15, 1967. The building was located just north of where the old (now vacant) junior high building stands, in the block of 200 East, between Center Street and 100 North.

Old Moab High School building, built in 1904, seen here in 1925.
Photo courtesy of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers.

The final bell of the day had just sounded and numerous children were milling about on the junior high school grounds.

The old building (built in 1904) was no longer being used for classrooms, but it still served as the Grand County Library, and had some 11,000 books on its shelves at the time. Another 3,000 books owned by the school district were also stored in the building.

The original building had consisted of just two rooms, but it was enlarged in 1917. It ended up serving as the high school for thirty years, until a newer brick one was built adjacent to it in 1934. The 1904 high school was then remodeled and served as a library and auditorium. Later, after a new high school (the current junior high) was built, the 1934 brick building became used as the junior high until 1997.

Also in the basement of the old high school building was the junior high’s cafeteria, where students walked over to eat their lunch each day. In fact, at one point during the 1950s, students from all 12 grades had eaten in the crammed lunchroom while new school facilities were being constructed.

By 1967, the old building had outlived its usefulness and had actually been scheduled to be demolished in just a few weeks (the fire occurred two weeks before the end of the school year). However, the unexpected fire ended up bringing the stately structure to a premature demise.

According to the May 18, 1967 issue of the Times-Independent, the blaze apparently began as a result of faulty wiring that caught the stage curtains on fire in the northeast corner of the auditorium. Librarian Aileen Nielson reportedly spotted the flames when she had gone in to the back portion of the building to turn off the lights. By the time she called the fire department about 3:45 p.m., smoke was already pouring out of the building, alarms had been sounded, and firefighters were on their way.

Stunned onlookers, recognizing the immediate danger to the library’s books, immediately formed a line from the burning building to the adjacent LDS Seminary building (the white building at 62 North 200 East that is currently the home of Studio Elite). At the rate of nearly a thousand books a minute, the library shelves were emptied of their contents and the books were hurriedly stacked in the nearby seminary building, where they reached almost to the ceiling. An estimated $75,000 worth of printed matter was spared.

In addition, Red Devil football coach Glen Richeson and several of his football players rushed into the building and were able to salvage thousands of dollars worth of football equipment, either by carrying it outside or tossing it out the windows.

Meantime, firefighters tried in vain to douse the blaze with streams of water, but the flames spread quickly throughout the ancient structure. Eventually, the bell tower atop the stately two-story structure buckled and fell, crashing to the sidewalk below.

The old building had had another close brush with disaster back in 1925, when a gym teacher who had been cleaning uniforms with gasoline ignited a blaze that heavily damaged part of the building. Fortunately, no one was injured in that fire, either. The building was repaired and ended up being used for another 42 years.

After the 1967 fire, no school lunches were served the remainder of the school year, and plans were made to house the library books at a temporary location until the new library could be built. The resultant Grand County Library, located at 25 South 100 East, still has a few volumes on its shelves that were spared from the flames that fateful May afternoon. To this day, many Moab residents still vividly remember the day the old school burned, and helping to save the books inside.

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