At least 19 of our 50 states have had a capitol building damaged by or lost to fire. Kentucky, Missouri, Oregon, South Carolina and West Virginia have each lost TWO state capitols to fire. In the case of South Carolina, their second capitol building was burned to the ground by an invading army*!


Every one of Virginia’s 6 pre-independence capitols was destroyed by fire (the sixth capitol long after it had been replaced by the current building), and the current building would have burned if the Union Soldiers entering Richmond on April 3, 1865 had not extinguished the flames set by the retreating Confederates!


The Wisconsin state legislature was worried that their building might burn down. The main part of it had been built between 1857 & 1869, but they had spent almost a million dollars in 1882 to add two wings to it (that was a lot of money back then). They had even put a sprinkler system in (it was the latest in fire fighting technology). The Legislature was SO impressed by the state-of-the-art sprinkler system they voted to cancel their fire insurance! I guess they figured “Hey, we’ve got this great system that puts out fires, so we’re safe”. Bad move, boys.

Five weeks after the insurance on the capitol was cancelled, it happened; February 26, 1904. The ceiling had just been varnished, and one of the gas jets used to light the building (this was before they had electricity in Madison) accidentally caught it on fire. The sprinkler system didn’t work because the reservoir that supplied it was empty! Before the fire fighters could connect another water source, the fire spread. Fire fighters came from Milwaukee, 80 miles to the east, to help, but it was so cold they had to unfreeze their equipment before they could do anything! Almost the whole building was destroyed, and many important and valuable papers and historical items were lost in this disastrous fire.


West Virginia had a particularly bad streak; they lost two capitols in 6 years! The first capitol in Charleston, the current capital, was destroyed in 1921, so they quickly built another, but in 1927, it burned down as well, killing two people!


Missouri also had some bad luck with capitols. Jefferson City’s first building burned in 1837, but in 1840, a fine new building was finished on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. Here’s what it looked like in 1848, when artist George Caleb Bingham painted the scene:




On February 5, 1911, the wooden dome was hit by a bolt of lightning. The resulting fire completely destroyed the building and many state records and treasures, in spite of the efforts of citizens, firefighters and government officials to rescue them from the burning building. The new capitol, the legislature resolved, would be fireproof.


It was 16 degrees F at 7:30 on the morning of December 28th, 1930 when the day guard at the North Dakota capitol in Bismarck called the fire department. He had just discovered fire on the fourth floor of the building. The Bismarck fire department was not prepared to handle the fire. They had only three fire fighters and two trucks, one of which couldn’t get up the icy hill to the capitol and had to be pulled by townspeople to the fire! Many state officials and citizens worked to rescue documents from the burning building, and in the end part of the building was saved, but the damage was so great the legislature decided it was time for a new capitol.


Oregon’s state capitol was the last to be destroyed, when it burned in 1935, but the Texas capitol had a narrow escape in1983, when it was about 100 years old. It seems a television in the Lieutenant Governors apartment in the East Wing was too close to a curtain and caused it to ignite. One person was killed and for a while it seemed the building was doomed. The blaze was finally contained and extinguished, but the capitol’s east wing was severely damaged.






*It was a bunch of darn Yankees, under the command of a marauder by the name of William T. Sherman.

 
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