Capitals & Capitols
The Fire Begins
Late on the evening of February 26, 1904, the lights in the Capitol dimmed, then went out, as they did every night between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m. when the generator in the basement which produced the building's electricity was shut down for the night. The only illumination remaining in the Capitol until daybreak would be two gas jets on the building s second floor - one in the Assembly Post Office in the west wing and the other in a room across from the Grand Army of the Republic's Museum in the south wing. These lights were intended to be used by the two night watchmen when they were not occupied performing one of their two nightly "grand rounds", which took them to all parts of the Capitol, including the attics over the Senate and Assembly Chambers, where a series of pipes with open nozzles were laid so that the rooms could be flooded in a matter of minutes if the danger of fire threatened. In spite of the fact that the rationale for replacing "Doty's Washbowl" with this structure was to provide a fireproof capitol and that this intention was explicitly referred to in the 1857 law authorizing its construction, several small fires had occurred throughout the years. During Governor Scofield's administration over $20,000 had been appropriated to install the sprinkling systems above the chambers, four standpipes with hoses within the building, and complete "circuit" of ten-inch water mains around the Capitol with eight hydrants in the park and a connection with the city water system in case the state's supply, held in tanks on top of the university's Main Hall, should prove insufficient. With these and other precautions in place, Wisconsin's Capitol had one of the most advanced firefighting systems of the day. Nevertheless, a principal part of the duties of the night watchmen on their "grand round" was to check all the fireplaces and stoves in the building to insure that embers were extinguished.
During one these grand rounds night watchman Nat Cramton smelled smoke shortly after 2:00 a.m. He immediately went upstairs to his second floor post in the west wing, following the odor. Arriving at the Assembly Post Office, Cramton found the recently varnished ceiling above the gaslight ablaze. He attempted to put the fire out by throwing a pail of water up on it, but the blaze had already progressed beyond such efforts. While the other night watchman, a Mr. Chase, unrolled a hose from the nearest standpipe, Cramton telephoned Madison's Central Fire Station, alerting the main company, which raced to the state house. Meanwhile, Chase had found that there was almost no water pressure, although he found the connection, hose and nozzle in good working order. Unknown to Cramton and Chase, an engineer at the university had drained the tanks on Main Hall in the course of cleaning a boiler. The Madison firefighters, mostly volunteers, arrived and for a time apparently gained the upper hand, but the fire spread above the ceiling and broke out again. Madison's Fire Company No. 2 was called to the Capitol and attached hoses to the state mains within the park, only to make the same unpleasant discovery that Chase had minutes before.
The Blaze Spreads
Although the valve to switch from the state supply to city water was in the park, well known to the night watchmen, it had inexplicably not yet been turned. Soon the blaze spread further and, more mysteriously, the valve next to the Adjutant General's office, which would have flooded the Assembly Chamber, also went unopened. By the time the water supply was switched, the fire was clearly out of control lighting up the frigid night sky.
One of the first Madisonians to awake to the sight was 15 year-old Joseph Livermore, who had the presence of mind to use his vest-pocket Kodak to take a most spectacular, if not the only, night photograph of the Capitol fire. Livermore later made copies of the photograph to sell for 10 cents apiece to earn enough money to purchase a bicycle; his father, however, felt the price too exorbitant and made Joseph reduce the price to 5 cents. One of Livermore's customers was a postcard printer, who ran off and sold hundreds of the postcards, without sharing any of the profits with the boy.
By about 4:30 a.m., it was clear that the Madison firefighters were overmatched, and Governor Robert M. La Follette was awakened with a request to call other communities for help. Both Milwaukee and Janesville were telegraphed and both responded by loading equipment and men on trains and dispatching them to the Capital. When the call for help reached Milwaukee, Engine No. 518, with Henry "Sky" Johnson at the throttle and Frank Backus stoking, was just pulling in from Madison. Railroad officials rushed to Johnson and asked how long it would take to make the return trip with the desperately needed equipment and men. The railroader replied that he could cover the 96 miles in 96 minutes if "the locomotive fireman holds out". Two pumpers and two hose carts were loaded onto flat cars and the firefighters were crowded into the caboose, and the tracks between Milwaukee and Madison were cleared. Backus "held out" and Johnson, true to his word, arrived in Madison slightly more that an hour and a half after leaving Milwaukee. Unfortunately, the subzero weather had frozen the water in the pumper and the equipment had to be thawed before the Milwaukeeans could join the battle against the fire.
Meanwhile, La Follette arrived to direct fire-fighting efforts, now augmented by volunteers composed of downtown Madison residents and about 200 university students. At the same time, the Governor organized efforts to save important state documents and furniture, personally entering the burning building to rescue papers again and again until Dr. Cornelius Harper forced the water-soaked Progressive to return home. After changing clothes, however, "Fighting Bob" returned to the state house.
By 5:00 a.m., according to the Wisconsin State Journal, the west wing, which contained the Assembly Chamber, "looked like one gigantic flame". Shortly afterward, the fire reached the magazine in the commissary department, setting off 17 rounds of powder as well as innumerable rifle cartridges, undoubtedly hampering fire fighting efforts. University students continued to arrive to aid in the rescue and fire-fighting efforts. Because of thick smoke filling the building, they were unable to use the stairways and several ladders were secured and raised to the windows in the north wing, which contained the State Law Library. Once inside, they began throwing volumes out the windows to snow banks below; others below began stacking the books haphazardly until State Supreme Court Justice R. D. Marshall arrived and organized the students into lines to pass the books hand-to-hand to nearby stores and later, to waiting wagons. According to Solon J. Buck (who later became archivist of the United States), then a senior attending the University of Wisconsin, this effort grew to five to six hundred people "and it began to get too crowded to work".
The fire raged on, involving all of the west and east wings, the rotunda and the south wing above the ground floor. The north wing was saved by the efforts of Madison volunteer Assistant Fire Chief, Jay H. Snell, several other firemen and others, including varsity football player, Arne Lerum. Almost as a counterpoint to all of the individual acts of selflessness, there were several reports of looting from the burning building. One person recalled seeing students running down State Street with arms laden with anything of value that could be carried, including typewriters. (The problem outlasted the fire: authorities were forced to erect a high board fence around the ruins to keep scavengers and looters out.) Finally, around 10:00 a.m., the fury of the fire began to subside. The armies of volunteers began to give way to thousands of spectators, causing a massive traffic jam. People from surrounding towns came to Madison to view the smoldering ruins, then attended a ski tournament on nearby Bascom Hill.
By 10:00 p.m., almost 20 hours after Nat Cramton first discovered the ceiling of the Assembly Post Office burning, the fire was finally out. Both Assembly and Senate Chambers were utterly and completely destroyed; the offices of the State Treasurer and the Secretary of the State suffered extensive damage as did those of the Free Library Commission and the Grand Army of the Republic. The Library Commission lost all of its records, a number of expensive books and several traveling libraries; the GAR lost scrapbooks, medals, photographs, banners and other relics of Wisconsin s participation in the Civil and Spanish-American Wars. But the most heartfelt loss was that of the remains of "Old Abe", the famed mascot of Wisconsin's Eighth Regiment. Fortunately the Civil War battle flags were saved early in the morning.
A New Capitol Arises From the Ashes
While the ashes cooled, state officials pondered their situation. The previous year, the Legislature had created a Capitol Improvement Commission to explore ways of further expanding the sandstone building. A few days after the fire, the commission, composed of Governor La Follette, State Supreme Justices John B. Winslow and R. D. Marshall, and four others, met and radically revised their program for the competition between architects for the task of expanding and renovating the Capitol. This entailed broadening a simple expansion project, costing perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars, to a major work of restoration and rebuilding comprising at least two million. At the same time, the state faced the consequences of an enormously ill-timed economy move. In 1903, the Legislature, in the interest of saving money, had enacted a measure allowing the state to insure itself against casualty loss, and the privately underwritten policy on the Capitol had been allowed to lapse in late 1903 in favor of the new State Insurance Fund, which, at the time of the fire, had accrued only $6,000. The loss incurred by the fire was estimated to be between $800,000 and one million. The radical revamping of the commission's program and the extra expense it would entail, combined with the enormous casualty loss, would not be faced squarely by the legislators until the next year.
In the meantime, the commission continued the process of advertising for and selecting competitive bids from architects. Cass Gilbert, designer of the just completed Minnesota State Capitol and future architect of West Virginia's and Arkansas' State Capitols, was chosen from a handful of entries. Gilbert's reign as architect of Wisconsin's State Capitol was short-lived, however, for in 1905 the Legislature empowered a new commission, the Capitol Building Commission, to undertake to build an entirely new building after holding a new architectural competition. The winner of this competition, juried by Professor Allan Conover and Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, was the prestigious New York firm of George B. Post and Sons, designers of the New York Stock Exchange. Although George Post, then 72, would not live to see the current Wisconsin State Capitol finished some 12 years later, there is little question that this was his most magnificent creation and the crowning achievement of an illustrious career.
Slowly, over the years 1906 to 1917, the old Wisconsin State Capitol was dismantled and scattered, although many attempts, several of them successful, were made to salvage portions of the Prairie du Chien stone and cast-iron structure. The most noble, albeit futile, attempt was undertaken at the behest of the Legislature. In 1909, a law was enacted directing the Capitol Building Commission to remove the cast iron dome in such a way that it could be reassembled on Main Hall at the University of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, it was not determined until much later that the weight of the dome was too great for the intended structure to bear, and the law was repealed in 1915, the year before the existing Main Hall dome was destroyed by fire.
In July 1917, the Capitol Building Commission formally went out of existence after 11 years, announcing that the new Wisconsin State Capitol was complete at an accumulated cost of almost $7.25 million, including the cost of temporarily housing several state government agencies in private office buildings, renovating sections of the old capitol for continued use during the construction period and building a heating and power plant (still in operation today). At the time, however, the announcement of the final completion of such a monumental structure made small ripples in the newspapers compared with the tidal wave caused by World War I; indeed, a formal dedication of the building would be repeatedly delayed until July 7, 1965.
It is unfortunate that the day was not more well marked - in spite of America's preoccupation with the War to End All Wars. After five attempts, the people of the State of Wisconsin had finally adorned their state with the Capitol they had always wanted. Indeed, the white granite, classical-revival building has already outlasted all four of its predecessors combined.
Compiled by Sara Hemp
1. Archives of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
2. (Strong, Moses), "Report of the United States Attorney for the Territory of Wisconsin in Relation to the Title to the Ground on which the Capitol Stands", Madison, 1839.
3. Wisconsin Legislative Journals (various years).
4. Wisconsin Secretary of State, Blue Book. 1872, 1882.
5. Wisconsin Senate, "Majority and Minority Reports of the Committee on State Affairs relating to the Capitol Extension", Madison, 1858.
Arcadia Republican and Leader; Ashland Press; Belmont Gazette; Capital Times (Madison); Chippewa Herald (Chippewa Falls); Dubuque Visitor; Dunn County News (Menomonie); Lake Geneva Herald; Lincoln County Advocate (Merrill); Lodi Valley News; Manitowoc Tribune; Milwaukee Journal; Saturday Reporter (Fond du Lac); State Gazette (Green Bay); State Register (Portage); Superior Inter-Ocean; Waukesha Freeman; Waupaca Post; Whitewater Register; Wisconsin State Journal (Madison).
1. Clark, James L., Henry Dodge: Frontiersman, Madison, 1957.
2. Duckett, Kenneth W., Frontiersman of Fortune: Moses M. Strong of Mineral Point, Madison, 1955.
3. Durrie, Daniel S., A History of Madison, The Capitol of Wisconsin; Including the Four Lake Country to July 1874, Madison, 1874.
4. Hitchcock, Henry R. and William R. Seale, Temples of Democracy: The State Capitols of the U.S.A., New York, 1976.
5. Keyes, Elisha W. (Editor), History of Dane County, Madison, 1906.
6. Mollenhoff, David V., Madison: A History of the Formative Years, Dubuque, 1982.
7. Park, William J., History of Madison, Dane County and Surrounding Towns..., Madison, 1877.
8. Paul, Justus F. and Barbara, (Editors), The Badger State: A Documentary History of Wisconsin, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1979.
9. Pelzer, Louis, Henry Dodge, Iowa City, 1911.
10. Shambaugh, Benjamin F., The Old Stone Capitol Remembers, Iowa City, 1939.
11. Smith, Alice E., James Duane Doty: Frontier Promoter, Madison, Wisconsin, 1954.
12. Smith, Alice E., The History of Wisconsin: Vol. I From Exploration to Statehood, Madison, 1973.
13. Smith, Rudolf, Observations on the Wisconsin Territory; Chiefly on That Part Called the "Wisconsin Land District", Philadelphia, 1838.
14. State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography, Madison, 1960.
15. Strong, Moses, History of the Territory of Wisconsin from 1836 to 1848, Madison, 1885.
16. Thwaites, Reuben Gold, The Story of Madison, 1836-1900, Madison, 1902.
17. Wright, Olgivanna Lloyd, Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life, His Work, His Words, New York, 1966.
Articles and Pamphlets:
1. "Facts Concerning the Capitol Fire." Report found in the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau .
2. "The Burning of the Capitol", The Wisconsin State Employee (October 1949). Word-for-word copy of a February 1948 Wisconsin Historical News release.
3. "The Work of the Wisconsin Capitol Commission," Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee (1905).
4. Child, Ebenezer, "Recollections of Wisconsin Since 1820", Wisconsin Historical Collections, vol. IV (1859).
5. Christy, Steve, series on Madison landscape architecture for the Capital Times (June 7-9, 1977).
6. Holzhueter, John O., "The Capitol Fence of 1872: A Footnote to Wisconsin Architectural History", Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. LIII (Summer 1970).
7. Lass, William E., "Belmont", Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. XL (Spring 1957).
8. Lathrop, H.W., "The Capital and Capitols of Iowa", Iowa Historical Record, vol. V (July 1888).
9. Lippert, David J., "Wisconsin's Capitol", The Wisconsin State Employee (July 1948).
10. Palmer, Strange M., "Western Wisconsin in 1836", Wisconsin Historical Collections, vol. VI (1872).
11. Salter, William, "Henry Dodge", Iowa Historical Record VIII (July 1892).
12. Salter, William, (Editor), "Letters of Henry Dodge to Gen. George W. Jones", Annals of Iowa, 3rd Series, vol. III (1897-1899).
13. (Smith, William R.), "The Journal of William R. Smith", Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. XII (December 1928 - March 1929).
14. Stoler, Lois, "August Kutzbock, Early Madison Architect", Journal of Historic Madison, vol. I (1975).
15. Taylor, Hawkins, "Before and After the Territorial Organization of Iowa", Annals of Iowa, 1st Series, vol. IX (January 1871).
16. Thwaites, Reuben Gold, "Executive Committee Report", Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (1906). 17. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, "Wisconsin First Capitol State Park", Pub. No. 7-2500 (75).
18. Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library, "Old Capitol at Belmont: Brief Statement Describing the First Wisconsin State [sic] Capitol" (June 1921).
19. Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library, "Digest of Laws Relating to the Construction of the Present Wisconsin State Capitol and the State Office Building" (August 1923; Revised: July 1942, October 1943, October 1945).
20. Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library, "Early Wisconsin State Capitol Buildings; Miscellaneous Notes" (February 1946).
21. Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library, "State Capitol Building Commission" (April 1946).
22. Wisconsin Then and Now, Issue on Belmont Capitol Restoration (June 1955).
23. Wisconsin Then and Now, Issue on 1904 Fire (February 1974).
Note: The Wisconsin Blue Book is a biannual publication of the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau. The Blue Book is an almanac containing information on the government, economics, demograpics, geography, and history of the state of Wisconsin. The Blue Book is published in the fall of every odd year, corresponding to the start of each new biennium of the Wisconsin state government. Since 1995, the Blue Book has been available in free electronic form. Hardcover editions of the book may be obtained by Wisconsin residents by contacting their Assembly representative or State Senator.
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