Sunday, February 6, 2011

State Capitol on Fire!

Jefferson City residents awoke this morning to the grim knowledge that the Missouri capitol has burned overnight and is a total loss. The fire started last night around 6:15, when lightning from yesterday evening’s thunderstorm struck the building’s dome. The fire spread rapidly along dry pine boards of the roof.

Firefighters from all nearby districts were called in, including the negro firefighters from Lincoln Institute and the German immigrants from the Muenchberg community just south of town. A group of firemen from Sedalia loaded their water pumps and other equipment onto railroad cars and made it to Jefferson City in record time—just over seventy minutes—but they were too late. By the time they arrived, the water main had broken, and there was nothing for anyone to do but simply witness the disaster. And the statehouse burned all night long.

. . . This, of course, is history, and the reason I’m mentioning it is that last night, February 5, 2011, was the one-hundredth anniversary of the disaster.

Sue and I went to the commemoration ceremony last night, and I want to tell you about it. If you weren’t there, you missed a pretty cool event.

Jim Dyke, a local artist and cartoonist, was one of the chief organizers, and what a wonderful thing he did for the community.

It started with a reenactment that had a twenty-first-century twist. At 6:15 p.m., church bells all over started ringing like crazy, and fire trucks, with lights flashing and sounding their horns, drove around the capitol’s circle drive, then parked in front of it, lights blazing, blasting out all the chords of “emergency.”

And, true to history, they represented many local departments—Jefferson City, Cole County, Russellville, Lynn, Osage, Columbia, and several more.

I’m sure that people driving by on High Street, the river bridges, or anywhere else within sight, were shocked by what must have looked like a tremendous emergency at the capitol!

Then, when this stage of the event was concluded, everyone convened in the beautiful rotunda of the capitol for a commemorative presentation.

What good fortune to have Bob Priddy there to tell the story of the 1911 Capitol fire!

In case you don’t know him, he’s one of our favorite historians of Jefferson City and Missouri. He’s a professional journalist with a distinguished career, and for years he did a radio show called Across Our Wide Missouri (and published books based on those programs).

He is one of those people who can relate history in a way that makes it gripping. By the time he’s done, you understand not only the story, but all the enriching context, as well. (More Bob Priddys, please!)

He didn’t just tell the story of the night of the fire; he described the decade or so before that event, when it had become clear that the old capitol was a musty old tinderbox and needed replacing, and when others in the state were trying to relocate the seat of government to their localities. With all the arguing in the legislature, no progress was made in preventing the disaster.

So the capitol fire in 1911 brought those issues to the forefront. And—after much more legislative and journalistic discussion—we all know how it turned out: Jefferson City remained the state capital, and the old capitol was replaced with one that far, far surpassed it, in strength, size, and beauty. Priddy pointed out the strange irony of that devastating fire: It was one of the best things that ever happened to Jefferson City.

I should also mention that he concluded his speech by pointing out that our beloved state capitol presently needs some millions of dollars in maintenance and renovation. And you know, considering that it functions not only as the seat of legislature and symbol of our state’s greatness, but also as a history museum and art museum holding priceless treasures, we really owe ourselves such renovation.

Mayor Landwehr issued a (very fun) proclamation, juxtaposing the situation of a hundred years ago to our lifestyles today. (For example, in 1911, a group of Boy Scouts volunteered the night of the fire, helping to keep people safe; in 2011, it would take at least a week to get all the parental consent forms signed!) He also recognized Mayor Elaine Horn of Sedalia, who was there with representatives of the Sedalia Fire Department.

Sedalia, by the way, was one of the strongest voices wanting to relocate the seat of government away from Jeff City—they believed they would be a much better location. Yet on the night of the disaster, there they were, rushing to get their firemen on the train, to help fight the blaze. Their efforts to acquire the seat of government would continue after the fire, but on February 5, 1911, such discussions were set aside.

Artist Jim Dyke spoke at the end, inviting everyone to proceed to his gallery a block away, as he had assembled a group of artifacts from the old capitol, along with posters and other displays about the fire. As an added incentive, he offered wine and cheese! (There were also sugar cookies shaped like the old capitol, iced with a conflagration of yellow and orange, and lightly dusted with sootlike black sugar sprinkles. I thought that was clever!)

Finally, at the end of the presentation in the rotunda, Mr. Dyke urged all the firefighters present—I think there were at least forty of them—to come stand with him before the audience. Thus there was a procession of uniformed and nonuniformed, professional and volunteer firefighters, who stood together in a line. This, naturally, garnered a standing ovation for them and for all the past-present-future heroes they represent.

It was a memorable evening, though it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to that night a hundred years ago. If you haven’t been to our state capitol, you really should see it. Of the top ten tourist attractions in Jefferson City, the capitol comprises numbers one through seven. And it took a major fire, a hundred years ago, to clear the way.

A Special Thank-You to Susan Ferber, who took these (and numerous other terrific) photos, of moving objects, in poor light, at all distances. Danke schoen, Sue! (The historic photo, at the top, appears on scads of Internet sites.)

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