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Century ago today, heroes battled fire that gutted capitol

Century ago today, heroes battled fire that gutted capitol

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Capitol fire
A gas jet used for late-night lighting started the fire that destroyed the state Capitol in Madison in February 1904.

If only someone had remembered that darn valve in front of Kornhauser's store on the Square 100 years ago today, maybe the great Capitol fire would have been averted.

Then again, if they had, we probably wouldn't have the beautiful and majestic State Capitol that now graces downtown Madison.

It was 100 years ago today, on a bitterly cold morning, that the flame from a gas jet used for late-night lighting in the Capitol started a small fire on the recently varnished ceiling of a cloakroom adjoining the Assembly post office on the second floor.

Night watchman Nat Crampton was the first to spot what was then a small fire, at about 2:45 a.m., and he could not be blamed if his first thought was that this wouldn't be happening if the bosses had listened to him.

Crampton would later recount the first few moments of what was soon to become one of the biggest fires in Madison history, a fire that not only destroyed the Capitol but led to legislative maneuvering to move the state capital to Milwaukee.

"I was downstairs, temporarily, when I smelled fire. I immediately rushed upstairs to my quarters and found that the ceiling had become ablaze from the gas jet," Crampton explained. "This jet was too near the ceiling, which had been blackened from it before, and I had called attention to the danger previously.

"I immediately grabbed a pail of water and dashed it up to the ceiling, but was not able to put it out. I then sent in an alarm to the city department, which arrived promptly, but the flames were then gaining fast," Crampton said.

What transpired the rest of that morning was a disaster in firefighting and led to major recriminations in the days and weeks to come.

The Capitol, built over several years and completed just after the end of the Civil War, had been equipped with a $20,000 sprinkler system that could have unleashed enough water to keep the fire damage to a minimum. But it didn't work.

The system was supplied by a large vat of water, which was beneath the dome on what was then called Main Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus. The problem was, university engineers drained the huge container while they did boiler repairs.

Still, that should have been only a temporary problem. As the city's superintendent of water works, John B. Heim, would later explain, the city water main around the Capitol connected to the Capitol system on the inside of the park in front of Kornhauser's store on West Mifflin Street. But the connection was made only when someone turned the valve. Nobody did, Heim said, or the disaster would have been averted.

While firefighters struggled with a lack of water, citizens awakened by the clamor headed downtown to watch the blaze. Meanwhile, Gov. Robert M. La Follette was called from his bed and he turned out to be a hero of the night, organizing efforts to save as much material from the building as could be saved.

Others showed just as much courage. H.D. and W.H. Wollshlager, of 314 W. Wilson St., were among those on hand and they, along with Charles Mitchell of the Madison Saddlery company, were among the first to race into the burning building. They ran to the rotunda area, where they saved the historic Civil War battle flags.

La Follette was in and out of the building numerous times, newspaper accounts of the blaze revealed, directing townspeople and students as they removed records and furniture.

One of the state's proudest symbols, Old Abe the war eagle, was one of the casualties. Old Abe had been through many battles with the Eighth Wisconsin in the Civil War and had been kept in a cage in the Capitol. After Old Abe died, his remains were stuffed and remained in the Capitol, only to be burned in the fire.

La Follette, soaked from head to toe by freezing water, was finally pulled from the burning building by Dr. Cornelius Harper at about 7:30 a.m. and ordered to go home. "Fighting Bob" did so, but he came back to the Capitol an hour later after putting on dry clothes.

Students actively joined in the effort to save as much as possible. Some ventured into the building's law library, tossing out books to fellow students. Others helped remove furniture and documents from the variety of state offices that were housed in the Capitol.

Paintings of former governors were carted over to the Park Hotel, while other businesses opened doors for temporary storage of materials saved from the building.

As usual, the students also got blamed for some of the unfortunate events of that day. "Too high praise cannot be given the students for their work in saving the law library," the Wisconsin State Journal said in days following the fire. "But some looting is charged to them also. It is said that four typewriters taken from the building are known to be in their hands, while several stuck great quantities of stamps into their pockets, besides getting other small valuables."

By 4:30 a.m., with the fire overmatching the local Fire Department, La Follette sent messages to Janesville and Milwaukee seeking help. In his detailed account of the fire in the 1983-84 Wisconsin Blue Book, Stanley Cravens describes the scene in Milwaukee when the call from the governor was received.

Engine No. 518, with Henry "Sky" Johnson at the throttle and Frank Backus stoking, was just pulling in from Madison. Railroad officials asked Johnson how long it would take to get back to Madison. Johnson said he could make the 96-mile trip in 96 minutes, providing Backus could shovel the coal that fast.

The train was loaded with fire fighting gear and made it back to Madison in just a bit over Johnson's prediction.

The extra men and machines from Milwaukee and Janesville didn't immediately provide much help, however, as the water in their pumper equipment had frozen on the way to Madison and had to be thawed out before use.

Some 20 hours after Nat Crampton had found the initial fire, the blaze was put out, with only the North Wing being saved from substantial damage. Both the Assembly and Senate chambers had been destroyed, with most other offices suffering extensive damage.

While much material was saved by those who pitched in to help, other valuable and sentimental material was destroyed.

"The free library commission department presents a sight equal almost to the ruins of the burning of Alexandria by the Arabs," the State Journal noted.

The smoke from the ruins had not yet died down when the recriminations began. It was quickly noted that the Legislature had, the year before, allowed for the state's insurance on the Capitol to lapse, meaning the estimated $1 million loss would be borne by taxpayers. Since La Follette had approved that budget-cutting move as had members of both parties, the issue died.

Madison's firefighters came under attack for both their antiquated equipment and the methods used to fight the stubborn blaze. Fire Chief Charles Bernard was one of those injured in fighting the fire and Assistant Chief John Engleberger took control of the fire scene.

"Everything in our power was done to extinguish the fire with the apparatus we had," he said later. "We need an aerial truck and fire engines before our department will be able to fight a big fire."

Then came the politicians. Other cities in the state saw the burned-out Capitol as an opportunity to wrest the capital city designation from Madison, and it appeared a full-scale political war might break out over where the new Capitol should be located.

Oshkosh put out feelers but Milwaukee eagerly sought to become the capital city. State Sen. Charles Cassius Rogers introduced a bill calling for the transfer to Milwaukee.

That caused one of the most unholy of alliances to form in response. Gov. La Follette was joined by his longtime enemy, "Boss" Elisha W. Keyes, to head the opposition to Milwaukee's plan.

Cooler heads prevailed once people realized it would take major amendments to the state constitution to move the seat of government to Milwaukee.

As thousands gathered to view the wreckage of the Capitol, there were a couple of schools of thought.

"To most of the residents of Madison, the sight of the noble old building now standing blackened and in ruins brings a lump to the throat and vain regrets to the heart," wrote the State Journal.

The Rev. E.G. Updike offered a different view. "The fire is a great loss to the state, but the building as it stood was not worthy of Wisconsin," he said. Then, proving his prescience, he added: "It will have on the same ground a larger and better building."

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