In September of 1881, Swarthmore College began its 15th year. The number of students enrolled had climbed to a record 266, even while the high school division of the college was being phased out. The Museum of Natural History in the dome had grown greatly, and construction on a new science building was about to begin. President Magill rode over to the Clothier Home in Sharon Hill to visit Isaac Clothier on the afternoon of September 25th, and the two men spent the evening discussing the bright future of the College.
Magill returned to Swarthmore around 11pm. "A few minutes later," Hull's A history of Swarthmore College records, "a loud explosion was heard, and looking from his chamber window the President saw a long column of fire shooting out of the west side of the dome. His first thought was, 'It is above the level of the great tank, and we have no appliances for forcing water above that level.'
"Of course it was soon found that the College was doomed, for although the wings were separated from the main building by fire-proof connections, the separating walls did not rise high enough to prevent the fire from spreading, and the roof being of combustible material, it was not long before it was in flames throughout the entire extent."
"The students were aroused with difficulty at that dead hour of the night, but they were all rescued without accident. The young men soon, of themselves, formed a line...thus saving most of their effects, and some of the College furniture, including all the mattresses of the west end, which they threw out of the windows, and which furnished fairly comfortable lodging on the front lawn later in the night, after the excitement and toughest glare of the fire had somewhat subsided. The young women faired worse, and their trunks and clothing were very generally destroyed."--the wind had blown the fire towards the women's side of Parrish.
By 1 am, falling timbers made it unsafe to enter the building at all. Fire companies arrived from Philadelphia around 4, to find the building "a mass of smoldering ruins". Except for the Friends' Historical Library on the second floor, with its fireproof floor and ceiling, everything but the stone walls of the building was completely destroyed. Nonetheless, breakfast was served on Parrish lawn at the usual hour of 7:30 the next morning, thanks to the generosity of the Chester Military Academy.
The Board of Managers were summoned by telegraph. By nightfall, they had rented houses in Media as a temporary home of the college, and classes resumed two weeks later. All but 3 of the students returned to class, and the college had to turn down a number of applications for admission for lack of space. The Board began a campaign for funds to rebuild Parrish, somewhat more fireproof, and "in such manner as to allow the utilization of the fourth floor for dormitories."