Capitol fire turning point for city

An unusually warm February should have provided a soothing Sunday evening.

Couples may have been on a leisurely stroll or neighbors visiting on their front porches.

But an ominous cloud brought a crack of thunder so profound everyone in the downtown area must have thought the accompanying flash of light hit their own building.

Then the phones began to rIng.

First, there was fire in the dome, then black smoke rolled out.

The flames were so bright, they could be seen from as far away as 20 miles. Reports of a glow even came from Boonville.

Gov. Herbert Hadley’s wife placed the call for the volunteer fire department. Then the governor interrupted a press conference with 30 journalists he was holding at the mansion to collect some things and make some phone calls from his Capitol office.

Volunteer Fire Chief Ed Gray sounded the fire bell at Central Station, then the corner of Monroe and High streets, and sent runners to ring the other firehouse bells in Richmond Hill and Muenchberg to gather what support could be had.

Gov. Hadley called Missouri State Penitentiary Warden Henry Andre to bring his best prisoners, any guards he could spare and all the prison fire hoses.

Then Hadley called Adjutant General Frank Rumbold at the National Guard Headquarters and gave the call for Company L, Second Infantry Regiment for general duty.

Next the operator placed the call for Hadley to the Missouri Pacific Railroad superintendent requesting a squad leave the tracks and climb up the hill to help. Following that call, the operator connected him with the Lincoln Institute volunteer fire department.

And then Mayor John “King” Heinrichs placed the call to a community that had been near enemies of Jefferson City just a few years before. He asked Sedalia Mayor J.W. Mellor for help.

The westward city sent its Fire Company No. 2 on a special Missouri Pacific train, which set a new speed record that night.

The firefighters, prisoners, Guardsmen, lawmakers and residents were elbow to elbow, united to do as much as they could for the doomed Capitol.

Secretary of State Cornelius Roach organized a human chain from his office, through the Capitol and out the doors, across the Capitol park to the old Supreme Court building at the southeast corner of Stewart Street.

Among the saved items were the state seal, land records and the official document abolishing slavery in Missouri.

But the lightning strike was too great a blow for the firefighters and their technology.

The volunteer firemen carried heavy, hard-to-handle cotton hose lines and only portable ladders. And new construction had cut off interior access to the dome as well as sealing the outside, preventing water from coming in, too.

“They couldn’t get to the seat of the fire,” Young said.

The steam-powered fire engines used at the turn of the 20th century used burning coal to heat water which produced the steam that powered the water pump. But that is only one-fifth the power of today’s fire trucks, said Capt. Tim Young with the Jefferson City Fire Department.

Even with the help of surrounding volunteer fire stations, including Richmond Hill, Muenchberg, Lincoln Institute, the Missouri State Penitentiary and Sedalia, the building’s fate was sealed when a water main broke.

Eventually, the inside of the dome collapsed inward and the outer, metal dome fell onto the House of Representatives’ north wing.

At the end, lawmakers were escaping with buckets and baskets covering their heads from falling glass and debris.

Sen. Mike Casey, D-Kansas City, even saved two George Caleb Bingham paintings.

But the next day, with the Legislature in session, they were not out of a job, just out of a place to work.

The House of Representatives took up debate in the Jefferson Opera House, on the northeast corner of High and Jefferson streets, and then later at St. Peter Hall.

The Senate met in the Cole County Courthouse and work space was created in the new Supreme Court building.

“The Capitol fire was a huge turning point for the city,” Young said.

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