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State Capitol Fire, 1881

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Black and white photograph of the first State Capitol building showing enlargement of 1878. Painted by Alfred Palmquist & Company, 1879.

First State Capitol building showing enlargement of 1878. Painted by Alfred Palmquist & Company, 1879.

As Minnesota state legislators met on the evening of March 1, 1881, two days before the end of their twenty-second session, two pages alerted them to a fire in the building. Quick action by lawmakers and nearby residents saved important documents, furnishings, and historical collections. The fire took no lives but destroyed Minnesota's first capitol building.

The fire began above the Senate chamber in the dome, first appearing in the Senate gallery before spreading to the rest of the building. Lieutenant Governor Charles Andrew Gilman and Senator William Crooks tried to stem the panic. Gathering up what documents and belongings they could, some senators quickly made their way to the exits. Others threw what they could save out the windows before climbing down ladders to safety. People in the galleries dashed to the narrow stairway to escape the smoke and flames. The last few members left the chamber just before fire engulfed the room.

In the House of Representatives, Speaker Loren Fletcher took responsibility for the safety of the young pages as the lawmakers rushed out of the chamber. At least one member chose to jump from the second story windows. Representative William Schmidt of Washington County leapt to the deep snow below, sustaining only minor scratches. The House clerks, credited with great presence of mind, remained at their desks long enough to save important session records.

The fire drew a large crowd of onlookers, many of whom raced to help remove furniture, books, and documents from first floor offices and carry them out to the capitol square. The nearby Unity Church and owners of neighboring homes offered temporary storage for the recovered items.

Those who valued art and history saved artwork and artifacts. Senator James Nathan Castle dropped a painting of the Falls of St. Anthony out of the chamber window, damaging the frame but saving the painting. Someone else rescued the portrait of Civil War General George H. Thomas that hung behind the Speaker's desk in the House chamber. Senator Charles Powell Adams and Captain C. E. Davis saved the state's military records and Civil War battle flags from the adjutant general's office.

The iron vaults in the offices of the governor and the clerk of the Supreme Court fell through the floor into the basement and survived with their contents undamaged. The holdings of the state treasurer's safe, $2,090,000 in U.S. and State of Missouri bonds and $5,000 in currency and specie, remained intact. The large collection of historic newspapers kept in the Minnesota Historical Society's vault also survived. J. Fletcher Williams, secretary of the historical society, estimated the society's losses to be no more than $2,000.

The state's library suffered the greatest loss. The fire consumed more than 11,000 of 12,580 books. The state's librarian estimated the collection's value to be $65,000, with many rare volumes. The library carried only $10,000 insurance. The State Grange lost most of its books and papers. The fire destroyed a collection of natural history specimens stored in the basement that belonged to the Academy of Sciences. Members of the legislature took up a collection for a young man with disabilities whose stand for selling fruits and cigars in the rotunda was a total loss.

The cause of the fire sparked much speculation. Some thought it began as the result of a gas explosion. With no gas lights located where the fire started, this theory proved unlikely. Some suspected the capitol's flag-raiser of carelessly dropping a lit cigar, but the worker in question stated that he left the dome before the fire started. Capitol janitor Charles E. Chapel visited the dome between five and six o'clock that evening. He saw nothing unusual and locked the access door. Without a reasonable explanation for the fire, many believed arson to be the cause. Officials never solved the mystery.

Volunteers worked through the night to prepare the new Market House at Seventh and Wabasha Streets, and the legislature reconvened there the morning after the fire.

The loss of the first capitol building meant more to the people of Minnesota than the estimated $80,000 value of the structure. It represented the loss of an important part of Minnesota's territorial and early state political history.

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"A Big Blaze. Reviewing the Scene the Day After it Happened." St. Paul Daily Globe, March 3, 1881.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1881-03-03/ed-1/seq-1

"The Cremated Capitol." Minneapolis Journal, March 2, 1881.

"Fire at the Capitol." St. Paul Daily Pioneer and Democrat, July 10, 1857.

"In Ashes. The State Capitol in St. Paul Burned Last Evening." Minneapolis Tribune, March 2, 1881.

"Incendiary Torch. The State Capitol Utterly Destroyed by Fire." St. Paul Daily Globe, March 2, 1881.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1881-03-02/ed-1/seq-1

"Market House." St. Paul Daily Globe, December 31, 1882. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1882-12-31/ed-1/seq-23

Related Images

Black and white photograph of the first State Capitol building showing enlargement of 1878. Painted by Alfred Palmquist & Company, 1879.
Black and white photograph of the first State Capitol building showing enlargement of 1878. Painted by Alfred Palmquist & Company, 1879.
Civil War General George H. Thomas, by Samuel Woodson Price, 1880
Civil War General George H. Thomas, by Samuel Woodson Price, 1880
Painting of St. Anthony Falls by Alexander Francois Loemans, ca. 1875
Painting of St. Anthony Falls by Alexander Francois Loemans, ca. 1875
Black and white engraving of the first capitol building
Black and white engraving of the first capitol building
Illustration of the first State Capitol, Tenth and Wabasha, St. Paul, 1875, showing the 1873 addition. From, Harper's Monthly, October 1875, p. 629.
Illustration of the first State Capitol, Tenth and Wabasha, St. Paul, 1875, showing the 1873 addition. From, Harper's Monthly, October 1875, p. 629.
Unity Church, Wabasha and Summit, St. Paul, ca. 1890.
Unity Church, Wabasha and Summit, St. Paul, ca. 1890.
Black and white photograph of New Market House, Seventh and Wabasha, St. Paul, 1883.
Black and white photograph of New Market House, Seventh and Wabasha, St. Paul, 1883.
Charles Powell Adams, Senator and Civil War veteran who assisted in rescuing historic battle flags from the state capitol fire. Engraved by H. B. Hall & Sons ca. 1864..
Charles Powell Adams, Senator and Civil War veteran who assisted in rescuing historic battle flags from the state capitol fire. Engraved by H. B. Hall & Sons ca. 1864..
Color image of keys from the first state capitol, found in the ruins of the burned-out building, 1881.
Color image of keys from the first state capitol, found in the ruins of the burned-out building, 1881.

Turning Point

On March 1, 1881 the legislative session is interrupted when a devastating fire breaks out in the capitol building.

Chronology

1853

The first capitol building is completed in St. Paul.

1854

The fourth territorial legislative session opens on January 4—the first session to be held in the new capitol.

1858

Minnesota becomes the thirty-second state to enter the union.

1867

Gas lighting is installed, replacing candles in the capitol.

1871

Steam heating replaces the original wood-burning stoves.

1873

A wing is added on the Exchange Street side of the building that will enlarge the Senate chamber.

1878

A second wing is added to the capitol on the Wabasha Street side of the building.

March 1, 1881

Just after nine o’clock at night, three days before the end of the twenty-second legislative session, a fire breaks out in the dome of the capitol. The building is a total loss.

March 2, 1881

Volunteers work all night to prepare the recently completed Market House on Seventh and Wabasha Streets so that the Territorial Legislature can reconvene on the morning after the fire.

March 3, 1881

The St. Paul Daily Globe publishes a message from Governor Pillsbury with an estimate of $60,650 from architect A. M. Radcliffe for the rebuilding of the capitol.