ST. PAUL, MN - While legislators met in both the Senate and House to discuss state business in March 1881, a fire broke out inside Minnesota's capitol building at 10th and Exchange Streets between Cedar and Wabasha. Thankfully, everyone escaped, but the building and scores of artifacts were destroyed. While the structure was soon replaced, calls grew ever-louder for a capitol building more representative of the greatness of the state to be built.
At 9:10 at night, on March 1, 1881, while the Senate was in session and engaged in the third reading of House bills, two Senate pages rushed into the chamber to announce that the dome above them was on fire. Dense black smoke followed them into the room. Flames illuminated the chamber through the windows of the gallery, which was also filling up with smoke.
Panic immediately ensued. Senators, staff, and attendees in the gallery worried not only about the fires but the oxygen-choking smoke that gathered around them. They began rushing for exits. Some senators threw documents out of the windows before climbing out and descending ladders to the ground below.
Senator William Crooks believed there was still ample time to escape. To instill calm in his contemporaries amidst the chaos, he turned to decorum. Crooks called for order and motioned for the Senate to adjourn for the night. After hearing no dissenting opinion, Lt. Governor Andrew Gillman, president of the Senate, granted the request.
Secretary of the Senate S.P. Jennison and his assistant sprang into action. They attempted to save as many essential documents as possible before fleeing for safety.
Shortly after the Senate chamber was cleared of people, a chandelier fell from the ceiling onto the floor. The room was soon engulfed in flames.
Uncertainty and fear of the moment were not limited to the Senate. Within minutes, the flames made their way toward the House chamber. An ordinary evening of legislative business was soon interrupted by cries of "Fire!"
In a mad rush to escape the burning building, desks and chairs were overturned. Members climbed out of second-story windows and down ladders to join the ever-growing crowd gathering on the ground below.
Firefighters rushed into the House chamber before all members had jumped to safety. They escorted those who were still in the room out of the building.
Like their Senate counterparts, the House's clerks and some members tried to gather as many documents as possible. Because calm heads prevailed amidst the chaos, the men saved nearly all the House records as well as some of the members' personal effects before exiting.
There were several artworks and historical artifacts saved. A painting of the Falls of St. Anthony was dropped out of the chamber window by Senator James Nathan Castle. The state's military records and Civil War battle flags were saved by Senator Charles Powell Adams and Captain C. E. Davis. Also rescued was the portrait of Civil War General George H. Thomas that had hung behind the Speaker of the House's desk.
The fire was under control by midnight. By 2 AM, the blackened walls of the former seat of state government were all that remained.
Amazingly, much of the vital paperwork survived the blaze. Many of the documents not stored in iron vaults had been carried to safety by legislators and staff. Unfortunately, the library was not as fortunate. The fire destroyed most of the nearly 13.000 books the library held. The state's librarian estimated the collection's value to be $65,000, with many rare volumes. But, the capitol's library was only insured for $10,000.
The capitol was deemed uninhabitable, and an alternative home was needed to continue state business. The new Market House, located a few blocks away at Seventh and Wabasha, was immediately converted into an "acting" capitol until other arrangements could be made. A second building, built at the same location as the first, was completed in 1883.
Either carelessness by capitol staff or arson was initially believed to be the cause of the fire. However, those claims were never adequately proven. The cause of the fire remains a mystery.
Cameron, Linda A. "State Capitol Fire, 1881." MNopedia | Minnesota Encyclopedia. Last modified August 7, 2017. https://www.mnopedia.org/event/state-capitol-fire-1881.
Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. "Capitols - Minnesota Legislative Reference Library." Legislative Reference Library - Minnesota Legislature. https://www.lrl.mn.gov/mngov/capitols.
Saint Paul Daily Globe. "Incendiary Torch." March 2, 1881, 1. https://www.mnhs.org/newspapers/lccn/sn83025287/1881-03-02/ed-1/seq-1.
Saint Paul Daily Globe. "A Big Blaze." March 3, 1881, 1. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1881-03-03/ed-1/seq-1/.
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