A Look Back • Fire destroys Missouri Capitol, sparking effort to build new one in St. Louis

2013-02-03T00:10:00Z 2013-07-12T11:34:32Z A Look Back • Fire destroys Missouri Capitol, sparking effort to build new one in St. LouisBy Tim O’Neil toneil@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8132 stltoday.com
February 03, 2013 12:10 am  • 

JEFFERSON CITY • Legislators were returning from their weekend break to deliberate upon loan-sharking and spittoons on passenger trains. A thunderstorm rumbled into town.

Boys were playing on the capitol lawn at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, 1911, when lightning smacked the copper-sheathed dome. Flame curled through pinewood trusses and spread. The boys hustled one block to the Madison Hotel with the alarm.

Church bells alerted volunteer firefighters, joined by National Guard soldiers and the penitentiary fire brigade. Dozens rushed into the capitol building to save documents.

But the city’s water system lacked pressure to fight a fire in a tall building on a bluff. The glow was visible for nearly 20 miles. Gov. Herbert Hadley called Sedalia, 60 miles west, pleading for better equipment.

The pumpers arrived by fast train, but too late. The capitol was gutted.

It was the second time a Missouri capitol was lost to fire, the original in Jefferson City having burned in 1837. The second blaze sparked a political scrum to move the capital elsewhere, with St. Louis interests in the lead.

One day after the fire, the Post-Dispatch shamelessly carried a front-page headline, “Make St. Louis the Capital!” and extensively quoted business leaders praising the idea. (Fortunately for history, the Globe-Democrat played it straight with a detailed disaster story.)

At the time, Jefferson City had 11,000 residents. St. Louis was the nation’s fourth-largest city, home to 21 percent of Missouri’s 3.3 million people — and big in its presumptions.

After statehood in 1821, Missouri’s government did its business in a hotel in St. Louis, then moved to St. Charles before heading west to a high bluff on the Missouri River for a permanent capital city. The state constitution required a central location.

Despite that daunting hurdle, St. Louis tub-thumpers moved fast in 1911 with proposals for a new capitol at Delmar and Hanley roads in University City or on Art Hill in Forest Park. Other cities weighed in — Washington, Mo., promised 30 acres and $500,000 down. Pilot Knob offered the Civil War battlefield.

The Senate reconvened in the Supreme Court building, the House in St. Peter’s parish school. Alarmed Jefferson City business leaders scrambled to defend their golden egg, such as it was.

Hadley, of Kansas City, soon declared the current location “cannot be improved upon,” and legislators from outside St. Louis rallied to his banner. Even some St. Louisans counseled leaving things as they were.

Sen. Adolph Methudy of St. Louis said the capitol should be in a small town “where there is little to distract the attention of lawmakers.”

The Legislature put a $3.5 million bond issue on the Aug. 1, 1911, ballot for a new capitol on the site of the fire. Voters adopted it 4-to-1, with some counties giving 10-to-1 ratios. Even St. Louis was solid for it. In Cole County, which includes Jefferson City, the vote was 5,000 to 14.

Jefferson City established a paid fire department the next year. The new capitol was completed in 1917.

Tim O'Neil is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact him at 314-340-8132 or toneil@post-dispatch.com

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