Both houses were in session when a fire broke out at the State Capitol in 1881. Hundreds fled down the building’s single stairway as flames raced overhead and smoke filled the chambers. The building was destroyed. And yet, aside from a “one-armed janitor” who was hit in the head by a burning timber while trying to haul books to safety, no one was injured.

This riveting account appeared on the Minneapolis Tribune’s front page the next day, March 2, under an exhaustive bank of headlines. Miraculously, the word “miraculously” appears just once in the story.

IN ASHES.

 
The State Capitol in St. Paul
Burned Last Eve-
ning.
 
The Structure Totally De-
stroyed, with Many Val-
uable Records.
 
Over Eleven Thousand Books
of the State Library
Burned.

The Valuable Collection of the
Academy of Sciences
Lost.
 
The Building Valued at $80,-
000 – Other Losses Be-
yond Estimation.
 
Narrow Escape from a Far
More Terrible Dis-
aster.

Both Bodies in Session When
the Fire Broke
Out.
 
Scenes of Great Excitement –
Members Escaping by
Windows.
 
Cause of the Fire Unknown –
Hints at Incendi-
arism.
 
An Extra Session Made Nec-
essary – Scenes and
Incidents.
 
Arrangements for the Meeting
of the Two Houses
To-day.
 
A CINDERED CAPITOL.
 
Special Telegram to The Tribune.

ST. PAUL, March 1. – The burning of the state capitol building last evening, upon the very eve of the close of the legislative session, is a misfortune the extent of which cannot at this time be fully appreciated. The calamity is so sudden a one, and the excitement which followed the escape of at least 300 people by a single stairway, from a building suddenly, mysteriously and almost entirely enveloped in flames, is so intense that the coolest reporter cannot measure the calamity.

 
THE FIRE BROKE OUT
 
at about a quarter past 9 o’clock. Both branches of the legislature were busy with the immense amount of work which had accumulated, and the galleries and lobbies were crowded with an unusually large number of people. The senate was busily grinding away at house bills, and had almost completed that order, and the attendance in that branch was large in anticipation of reaching the bond bill, the amendments to which had to be concurred in by that branch. With a suddenness which is beyond description, and almost entirely beyond appreciation, the members of both branches were apprised of the fact that
 
THE BUILDING WAS ON FIRE;
 
that the flames threatened to shut off escape by the only stairway with which the building is supplied, and that an appalling calamity stared at the lowest estimate 300 people in the face. The scene in the senate, where The Tribune reporter was on duty, was an exciting one, and not soon to be forgotten. The lieutenant-governor was in the chair, and the secretary calling bills upon their third reading, the sawdust memorial just having been reached. The senators were variously occupied in their seats, or lounging about in the smoking-room, when some one burst into the room and shouted “fire,” and
 
A PERFECT PANDEMONIUM OF SHOUTS
 
followed. The alarm needed no further proof than was apparent to every person in the room. Through the windows at the back of the gallery it was evident that a great sheet of flame held possession of the hallway or corridor into which the main and only stairway leads. There was a grand rush for the doors, the lieutenant-governor, with admirable coolness, attempting to allay the excitement, which only rose the higher as a body of senators attempted to escape by the door, only to be
 
BEATEN BACK BY FLAME,
 
and a cloud of black smoke that threatened to shut off that escape. Brave men blanched with fear. A thousand thoughts rushed through excited minds, and the distance from the windows to the ground was measure with anxious eyes. “Shut the doors!” “Shut the doors!” “Don’t make a draft!” “Act like men!” yelled the excited crowd, who rushed about the room measuring every possible mode of escape. “Some one should
 
MOVE TO ADJOURN,”
 
shouted the secretary, and senator Crooks made the motion, which was put and responded to with an unanimity of sentiment not usually encountered. The doors were closed, but a second attempt revealed the fact that the cloud of smoke had raised somehow, and a pell-mell dash was made for the stairs, down which the members of the house and the spectators in the gallery were already passing. Meanwhile some of the occupants of the senate chamber, among them Senators Pillsbury, Officer, Miller, Assistant Clerk Wedge and The Globe and Tribune reporters had escaped, by the window to the veranda at the east end of the building, where they were engaged in
 
YELLING LUSTILY
 
for ladders and ropes. The escape was none too soon, for before the last person had left the room a great cloud of flame enveloped the dome of the building, had spread through the tinder-box mansard-roof and great cinders were dropping though the ventilator into the center of the senate chamber, where a fire was kindled in the carpet. A few of the senators had the presence of mind to save their effects, nearly all of them bundled into their wraps, and the clerks with admirable coolness and presence of mind
 
RESCUED ALL THEIR RECORDS,
 
the bills in the pigeon-holes of their desks and everything of value upon which they could lay their hands. They were the last to leave the room, carrying with them the uncompleted legislation, the fruit of months of consideration. Several intrepid members returned by the window later and secured other of their effects, but less than three minutes had elapsed before all the upper portion of the building was enveloped in flames and the structure was doomed.
 
THE SCENE IN THE HOUSE
 
was even more exciting. The first premonition of danger was the dropping of fire into the gallery, a shout from the resort of the vox populi of Fire! And the bursting into the room of a cloud of black, sickening and forbidding smoke. Two hundred persons rose as one individual, Mr. Rice, who was in the chair, deserting his seat unceremoniously. Those who first attempted it, believed escape by the long narrow hall, more than one hundred feet in length, presented to them what appeared to be
 
AN INSURMOUNTABLE BARRIER.
 
Mr. Denny, with more coolness than some others, jumped to the speaker’s desk and cautioned the crowd to go, but to do it with discretion and coolness; that the passage was open; but an unknown influence suddenly, and for a brief interval, cleared the hall of smoke, and the mass of humanity, among who were a number of ladies, poured down the hall an excited, eager and unmanageable crowd. Miraculously no one was hurt, and every person escaped, though more than one occupant of the room counted the cost of a leap for life through the window, and philosophically made up his mind that a great danger was to be met. The scene was
 
TRAGIC AND HUMOROUS,
 
and never to be forgotten by the eye-witnesses of it. Men, usually calm, dashed wildly about the room, a thousand terrible fancies flashing through their brains. Only one member, Mr. Schmidt, of Washington county, concluded to jump rather than brave an uncertain battle with the flames, and dropped from one of the windows into a snowbank, with only a few unimportant bruises. The clerks, appreciating their responsibility, gathered together the records and carried them to place of safety. Speaker Fletcher, with an eye to the danger that threatened the younger pages, took them
 
UNDER HIS PERSONAL CARE,
 
and dragged them with him out of the building. The spectacle which met the eye of the crowd as they escaped into the free air of safety was a building, the roof of which was almost entirely enveloped in flames, and the dome of which was a great beacon of light, spreading a lurid glare over the entire city.
 
THE ORIGIN OF THE FIRE
  
is wrapped in some mystery. There were no premonitory evidences of the fire. When it was first discovered it seemed to have gained full sway throughout the range of the entire French roof. It seemed to have gained more headway in the dome of the building, and is variously ascribed to the explosion of gas in that part of the building and to an incendiary. The janitors hold to the latter theory. There was no gas lit or lights of any kind in the garrets, which are apparently nearly ten feet in heighth in the center, and extending over the entire building, a structure nearly 300 feet in length, and of a width ranging from 50 feet to 150 feet. Half an hour had not elapsed before the whole second story was enveloped.
 
THE LOSS.
 
The loss is beyond estimation. The structure was worth not less than $80,000, and contained the accumulation of years, which cannot be replaced. On the first or ground floor the valuables were placed in the vaults or removed from the building, the carpets in some of the rooms even being removed. The most serious loss, undoubtedly, is the state library, which contained 12,580 volumes, many of which cannot be replaced. Less than 1,000 of the entire number were saved. The money value of the library was probably $75,000, but it does not express the real value of the property. The treasury vault contained $2,190,00 of state and Missouri bonds, besides other valuable property, and towards this receptacle the
 
FIRST STREAMS WERE TURNED
 
and were not permitted to cease. The state’s property is probably safe. The insurance across the hall was supplied with a vault, and the secretary of state’s room and the auditor’s department, with a like safe depository, and nearly all other departments with safes. Such property as could be placed in these receptacles is probably safe, but as soon as it was evident that the lower floor could be entered with safety a steady stream of men were engaging in carrying away the contents of the building. The records of the supreme court clerk’s office were carried out, and when last seen by The Tribune reporter were dumped on the snow in front of the burning building. Secretary Williams, of
 
 
took personal supervision of the removal of the valuable and not-to-be-replaced articles in his department, which were carried to the Universalist church, opposite the capitol. Nearly everything not securely deposited in the vault was removed. The Academy of Science, which occupied a room in the basement beyond that of the Historical Society, did not fare so well. In the confusion the key to the room was lost, and before the door could be broken open the smoke drove back the workers. A very valuable collection of natural curiosities is therefore lost. The reports of the departments, the accumulation of years in the state department, were stored in the basement also, and
 
ARE ALL DESTROYED,
 
and so far as could be learned many valuable documents in the adjutant-general’s office. The state officials have confidence in their respective vaults preserving the essential documents in their stands, so that the record of government may be maintained without serious interruption. But the disaster precipitates
 
AN EXTRA SESSION
 
of the legislature, although steps were taken promptly during the evening by the mayor and lieutenant-governor and speaker for the legislature to resume its session this morning in the new market building, which will at once be placed in readiness for occupancy. The senate is to meet this morning in the municipal court room in that structure, and the house of representatives in another apartment, known as Market Hall. The various departments of state are to be distributed throughout the first floors, in the stalls, fully separated by glass partitions. It is a fortunate fact that a building do well fitted for the purpose created by the necessity is not yet occupied, and is so near completion. The clerks of the two branches were busily engaged last evening in
 
STRAIGHTENING OUT THEIR RECORDS,
 
preparatory to the resumption of business to-day, but it is not anticipated that much will be accomplished, with only another working-day and business in a chaotic condition. There is but one opinion and that is that the government will promptly call an extra session, that provision may be made for temporary quarters for the state departments, and for rebuilding the present structure or some new one. The fire department battled bravely with the flames, but the streams were not many in number nor of notable power. They made no impression whatever, apparently, on the flames, which licked up the combustible interior of the building, leaving the stark walls at 2 o’clock this morning lit up with the embers of the fire. Crowds of people assembled during the progress of the fire. Later in the evening the persons who were in the building when the fire broke out, principally excited solons, gathered in groups and recited their narrow escapes and incidents of
 
A MEMORABLE NIGHT,
 
which threatened to be crowded with horror and tragic events. “I had made up my mind,” said Col. L.L. Baxter, “that my time had come, and said as much to Mr. Dunn. I’ve been in tight places before, but never in one that seemed to threaten so sure a fate as that for a few minutes.” The eight or ten ladies in the hall of the house of representatives were almost frantic in their fear and were calmed with difficulty. Senator Hinds promptly took into his care the single lady in the senate chamber, who was engaged in conversation with him when the alarm was first given, and led her in safety out of the building. They were among the first to brave the flames in the hallway.
 
A number of the members in their haste to escape from the building left their hats and coats, and though some of them were searching for the lost garments among a number taken out by the ladder brigade, numbers will measure their chief loss in this direction. The only insurance on any of the property that has been discovered is that of $10,000 in the London, Liverpool & Globe, placed against the policy of the state upon the library. It will be but
 
A DROP IN THE BUCKET
 
in replacing the property. It has been for years, as was developed at the time of the fire at St. Peter, the theory that the state can best afford to insure its own property. The subject of placing insurance on the capital building was broached recently in one of the legislative committees, but did not meet with favor or approval. Unity church, the Lutheran church, Judge Palmer’s residence and other contiguous buildings were made storehouses during the early evening, but at this writing, 1 o’clock, a force of men are engaged in removing the department records and furniture into the market house, where some of the officials expect to be prepared for business at the regular hour. The halls were being made in readiness for the assembling of the two branches of the legislature at 10 o’clock. Among the books discovered to have been saved from the library are a set of old English reports, among the most valuable in the collection.
 
A HEROIC EFFORT
 
was made by Chas. Chappel, the one-armed janitor of the capitol building, to save more of this collection, the value of which he was quick to appreciate, and he lingered in the room until a burning timber fell, striking him on the head. He left then, but carried under his single arm all the books he could conveniently and successfully grasp. Gov. Pillsbury,  who was not in the city last evening, but he had a conversation by telephone with Mayor Dawson, of this city, who promptly tendered the market house, and whom he desired to proceed and make whatever arrangement for the resumption of business as his judgment and generosity dictated. For some unaccountable reason the bond bill was
 
LINKED WITH THE HINTS AT INCENDIARISM,
 
But that theory is thoroughly preposterous. Had any designing person desired to wipe out at this stage that portion of the minutes the work could have been more thoroughly accomplished after the bodies had adjourned for the night. But Secretary Jennison, appreciating the importance of that bill, made it the object of his special attention in his effort to save. The most reasonable theory of the fire is that some careless person dropped in the space between the ceiling and dome
 
A LIGHTED CIGAR
 
that started a fire among the cobwebbed rafters of the old and thoroughly seasoned tinder-box. The place is not accessible to the general public. And Jefferson Davis Hudson, the very much eulogized flag-raiser, elected though the efforts of W.D. Rice, has been almost the only person to pass though that part of the building to the dome. He was up there, it is stated, about an hour before the fire broke out, and alleges that he discovered no evidence of fire, and professes total ignorance of its cause. The rapidity of its spread is one of the mysterious features of the disaster, and had there been an explosion, of which there was no evidence, the conflagration might be attributed to escaping gas accumulating in that unventilated apart of the building, and igniting; but the generally accepted theory is that the fire was
 
INCENDIARY IN CHARACTER,
 
and near as can be stated was ignited over the senate chamber, if it was not set in more than one place, with what intent beyond cussedness no person can say. Access to the attic and dome was through the gallery of the senate chamber.
 
Among the valuables known to have been lost was the large painting, belonging to Mrs. Loemans, of St. Anthony Falls in 1821, which had been deposited in the senate chamber. The picture of Gen. Sherman, also in that part of the building, was burned. The life-size picture of Gen. Thomas that hung in the house of representatives was saved. Mrs. Loeman’s picture was a rare one, and cannot be replaced.
 
At 2 o’clock this morning the fire is simply smouldering, and a force of men is engaged in establishing the departments of state in the market house.
 

The State Capitol in January 1879, two years before the fire. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

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