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"Up in Smoke:" The Story of the Capitol Fire of 1904


Fire at the Capitol Postcard, 1904

On February 26-27, 1904, the third Wisconsin State Capitol, a building with a state-of-the-art fire fighting system, was destroyed by fire. Shocking as the event was, that Capitol, which was as meaningful to Wisconsin then as the current Capitol is today, is now largely forgotten. Part of this neglect is due to the fact that the Capitol was replaced with a much more spectacular edifice and some of the neglect stems from surprisingly limited visual documentation.

There are only three known pictures of the legislative chambers in the third Capitol and none at all of the governor's office, the room from which Robert M. La Follette, Sr., launched Wisconsin's Progressive reform movement. About the earlier Capitol, the first built in Madison, the visual evidence is even more scarce.

"Up in Smoke" is an online exhibit drawn from the collections of the Historical Society archives that uses photographs as archeological tools to stimulate the mind's eye.

Tour Selected Second and Third Capitol Images

Capital or Capitol; A Brief Vocabulary Lesson

Capital a. deadly; also--pre-eminent; first in importance; chief; principal; affecting the head or life (capital punishment); incurring the forfeiture of life (a capital offense); excellent, very good, first class; a term applied to a letter of a certain form and a larger size than that generally used in the body of written or printed matter.
n. the uppermost part of a column; the chief city or town in a kingdom or state; money or wealth in some shape employed in trade, manufacturing, or in any business; wealth; influence.

Capitol n. the temple of Jupiter at Rome on the Capitoline Hill; the edifice at Washington in which the Congress of the United States holds its sessions; also, the building in which a state legislature meets; a statehouse.

A Brief Chronology of Wisconsin Capitol Numbers

First Capitol

1836 First Capitol. The territorial government meets at Belmont, selects Madison as the territorial capital, and names Burlington, Iowa as the temporary capital.

Second Capitol

1837 Second Capitol. Construction begins on the Madison Capitol while the Legislature meets in Burlington
1838 The Legislature arrives in Madison with the Capitol unfinished. Locals refer to the Capitol's odd-looking tin dome as "Doty's Washbowl"
1848 Wisconsin becomes a state. The second Capitol is completed, but its inadequacies, one of which is its fire danger, are soon apparent.
1857 "Enlargement" of the Capitol is authorized, and August Kutzbock and Samuel H. Donnel are hired as architects. The Legislature decides on phased replacement of old Capitol by building the new building around the old.

Third Capitol

1859 Third Capitol. The first phase, the East Wing, is completed. Slowed by events of the Civil War, the West Wing is not completed until 1862.
1863 Second Capitol is demolished, work begins on the North and South wings, and construction of the central Rotonda begins on the foundations of the old Capitol.
1866 Stephen Vaughn Shipman is hired to replace Kutzbock-Donnel's design for the dome with a design similar to the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
1869 Third Capitol dome completed
1873 Park improvements recommended by H.W.S. Cleveland including an iron fence and stone gateways enhance the dignity of Capitol
1881 Old Abe, the eagle of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry who resided in the Capitol basement, dies and is stuffed for exhibition
1883 Additions are constructed to the North and South wings. Collapse of the South Wing during construction kills five workmen
1900 State Historical Society moves from the South Wing to a building on State Street, citing the need for space and fireproof quarters.
1903 Capitol Improvement Commission appointed to study expansion of the third Capitol. Legislature allows private insurance on the Capitol to lapse
1904 February 26-27 Gas jet ignites a newly-varnished Capitol ceiling. An empty University reservoir permits the fire to spread, destroying all of the building except the North Wing. Loss is estimated at between $800,000 and one million dollars.

Fourth Capitol

1905 Legislature authorizes a new building commission to plan an entirely new Capitol building.
1909 Fourth Capitol. First phase of the new building, the West Wing, is completed. The dome of third Capitol is demolished.
1913 North Wing of the third Capitol is demolished.
1917 Fourth Capitol is completed.

"Capitals and Capitols in Early Wisconsin," a more detailed history by historian Stanley H. Cravens, is available from the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau Web site. (PDF, 145K)

To perform specific Capitol-related searches, visit Wisconsin Historical Images

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