February 26, 1904 – Madison, WI
In the evening a gas jet ignited a newly-varnished ceiling in the capitol building. A night
watchman on his rounds smelled smoke. The Capitol had been wired for electricity, but some gas
jets were still in use.
The Capitol had a $20,000 sprinkler system and was connected to both the city water supply and
the state supply, which was located atop UW-Madison's main hall.
An engineer at the university had drained the tanks on top of Main Hall while cleaning a boiler.
Gov. Robert La Follette telegraphed a request to Milwaukee and Janesville for help. Both
responded in record time, loading their equipment on trains. The Milwaukee Fire Department made
it to Madison in 96 minutes, but they found the frigid weather had frozen the pumpers, and they
had to wait for them to thaw.
Volunteers, including hundreds of university students, also fought the fire. La Follette ran into
the building again and again to save state documents and directing people as they removed records
and furniture. The students climbed ladders to the upper stories where the State Law Library was
and began pitching books to the snow banks below.
The fire burned on for 20 hours. The entire structure except the north wing burned to the ground.
Unfortunately, La Follette had ordered the State Historical Society to return the revered remains
of "Old Abe," the bald eagle that accompanied the Wisconsin 8th Regiment in the Civil War, to the
Capitol just a year or two before the fire. So the stuffed body of Old Abe also went up in the
More on Madison's Capitols...