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Odd Wisconsin Archive

La Follette at the Fire

Yesterday (June 14th) was the birthday of Gov. Robert M. La Follette. Every Wisconsin resident knows "Fighting Bob" as the Republican leader who restrained big business, made taxes fairer, protected the environment, cleaned up government, and opened elections to more voters. But few people realize that he also risked his life when theWisconsin Capitol caught fire in 1904.

The Capitol Fire of 1904

About 3:00 a.m. on February 27, 1904, a minor fire spread out of control on the second floor of the state capitol building. A gas lamp in a cloak room next to the Assembly had ignited some newly varnished wood-work. Water supplies from the city and the University failed to function properly, and the fire quickly penetrated the wood and plaster walls.

Madison firefighters fought the blaze throughout the next day with the help of two Milwaukee companies and Madison's downtown residents, but only the north wing survived. Although the loss was estimated at between $800,000 and one million dollars, no one died in the blaze.

La Follette's Actions

Gov. La Follette was awakened and rushed to the Square, where he joined hundreds of UW students and other citizens trying to save the heart of state government from destruction.

"He ran everywhere through the burning building," wrote an eyewitness, "directing the work of rescue of valuable records and documents."

La Follette helped carry out paintings, furniture, and the archives of state government until, "completely soaked from head to foot," two other volunteers finally "took him by the arm and dragged him out of the building."

After changing clothes, La Follette plunged back into the fray, but it was a lost cause.


The massive building burned for 12 more hours before the fire was entirely out. By then, the Assembly and Senate chambers and much of the rotunda were gone, and the offices of the State Treasurer and the Secretary of the State were damaged beyond repair.

Over the next decade, the Capitol that we know today rose from the ashes. La Follette, during those years, rose to national prominence as a leader of progressive reform.

Learn More

View a gallery of images about the fire

Read newspaper accounts of the fire

See original documents related to the career of Gov. Robert M. La Follette
:: Posted in Curiosities on June 14, 2012

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