CSU lost Old Main building to arson in spring of 1970

Ravyn Cullor

On Wednesday, it will have been 49 years since Old Main, a fixture of the Colorado State University campus since the 1870s, was burned to the ground in a suspected arson case amid peaceful political protests.

The night of May 8, 1970, saw two structure fires on campus, at both Old Main and the ROTC firing range building, according to archived copies of The Collegian. The fires followed two days of peaceful strikes and protests in reaction to President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia during the Vietnam War and the shooting death of four students at Kent State.

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The cost of rebuilding Old Main was estimated at $944,425 at the time, or $6.2 million today. The fire at the ROTC firing range was put out quickly by a police officer and only caused an estimated $300 of damage (a value of nearly $2,000 in 2019 considering inflation), according to The Collegian.

Old Main and the ROTC firing range building burned down in 1970 following suspected arson. According to Collegian Archives, no suspect was ever prosecuted.  (Collegian Archival Photo).

Old Main, which was built in 1878-1879 and located off College Avenue south of Laurel Avenue, first set fire shortly before 11 p.m. and burned for two to five hours, according to various reports in The Collegian. The fire reportedly started in the basement on the north side of the building, followed by several explosions, one of which was the gas line to the 91-year-old building.

A crowd of 3,000 watched while firefighters and students battling the flames were forced closer to the heat by low water pressure. No one was killed in the blaze, but it destroyed the building and left an estimated $500,000 of damage at the time, or $3.3 million today, according to Collegian reports.

That night, an estimated 800 students patrolled the campus and protected other buildings, including 24 Army and Air Force ROTC cadets and a number of officers from the department.

“I want to commend the students in the last several days,” Fort Collins Mayor Karl Carson said, following the fire, in a May 10, 1970 edition of The Collegian. “Through the cooperation of citizens, students and faculty members, we will rebuild from the ashes of this event.”

The fire at the ROTC firing range was definitively determined to be an act of arson, with a one-gallon Molotov cocktail found on the premises. Arson was also suspected for the Old Main fire, and the two were thought to be connected. Police believed the possible suspect or suspects were non-students, who reportedly said “something will burn on campus tonight,” according to the acting chief of the CSU Campus Security Police at the time, Lt. G. L. Emerine.

“I believe there is at least circumstantial evidence that this fire is the work of a sick person bent on attempting to shut the University through terrorist tactics,” said then-CSU President Adrian R. Chamberlain.

Despite the formation of a team, including CSU police and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, who investigated hundreds of leads in connection with the fire, no one was ever prosecuted, according to CSUPD historical information.

The Sunday after the fire, the American Legion marched in honor of the building, starting at a war memorial which was located on Laporte Avenue, down College Avenue and to the ruins of Old Main.

A small copper box was also found at the cornerstone of Old Main, placed there by the Masons when the building was constructed, containing newspapers, a bible, bottles of seed samples and the laws of Colorado Agricultural College (CSU) and the state of Colorado, among other things.

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A peace institute was proposed to take Old Main’s place on campus, but it was never built.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the title of former acting chief of CSU campus police Lt. G. L. Emerine, and to remove the word “all” from the description of the 24 army and Air Force ROTC cadets.

Ravyn Cullor can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @RCullor99.