In 1900 a decision was made to build a large vat, an above-ground cistern, below the dome of Main
Hall rather than build a costly water tower. They needed to ensure that enough water would be
available on campus to fight a major fire. Made out of sheet iron, it was about 20 feet in diameter,
15 feet high, with a capacity of 40,000 gallons.
On October 10, 1916 one of the most spectacular fires in Madison history started in the dome,
flames and smoke were visible for miles. The dome was lost but there was little damage to the rest
of the building. The wood structure of the dome burned fast but as the timbers and beams broke off
many of them fell into this large tank of water. Eventually the tank broke open and water spilled
throughout the building preventing the fire from spreading.
This was the second dome on Bascom Hall, no new dome was built.
The cistern remains in Bascom’s attic, along with the timbers that were charred but not ruined in
the blaze. Through a locked door, up a ladder, and you can look inside the tank.
The city of Madison also depended on this water to fight fires. In 1904 the vat had been emptied
for repairs when a great fire started at the Capitol
. With no
water available to fight the fire, Governor La Follette had to call for out-of-town help.