In the early winter morning of February 27, 1904 the Wisconsin State Capitol was devastated by fire, which started when a newly installed “highly varnished ceiling of yellow pine” was too near a gas jet. The fire began in the south wing on the second floor, which in the end was destroyed.
From the NFPA Quarterly, v.24, no.4, 1931:
“The Capitol building was a large structure approximately 225 x 400 feet arranged in the form of a Greek cross with corridors extending from a rotunda in the center. These corridors, high and fairly narrow, acted like flues, for flames appeared simultaneously from windows at the extreme north and south ends. The building was old, having been erected in 1839 with various subsequent additions. Its original cost was $900,000…The loss was estimated at $275,000.”
It is said that Madison and Milwaukee firefighters worked for 18 hours to kill the fire. Thankfully, the Governor at the time—Robert M. La Follette—was present and able to personally save most of the state records, correspondence files, and the law library. Two years later in 1906, construction for the current capitol began and the fire-damaged building was demolished.
This is not a unique story—many State Capitol buildings were ruined with fire in the early 20th century. Thankfully, no lives were lost and most of the valuable records were saved in this fire, which was not the story for others, like the New York State Capitol fire in 1911.
~ Written by Jenny DeRocher, Simmons College '18 MLIS Candidate,
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