The State's Calamity: Fire Destroys the Texas Capitol
Wednesday, November 9, 1881 dawned gray and rainy in Austin. Each member of the six-man Capitol Board left his house that morning to trudge along the city’s muddy streets and enter the Capitol by way of the broad limestone staircase leading up to the building’s second story. After shaking off the morning dampness the men made their way to the House chamber.
Governor Oran Roberts, State Comptroller William Brown, Land Commissioner William Walsh, Attorney General James McLeary, Judge Joseph Lee and Colonel Nimrod Norton each found a seat and settled in on the task at hand, laying plans for construction of a new Capitol to replace the unpopular version in which they found themselves. Little did the men suspect that before day’s end they would flee for their lives.
Texas Governor Oran Roberts met with other members of the Capitol Board in the House chamber as the building caught fire.
Twenty-nine years earlier Congress had appropriated funds for construction of a building to replace the earlier wooden Capitol that stood along Eighth Street between Colorado Street and Congress Avenue. A call by the 1852 Capitol Board for architectural drawings of a new capitol elicited several responses.
The Board rejected them all, but hours of meetings finally yielded a compromise plan which incorporated aspects of several submissions. Site preparation began March 5, 1852 and the cornerstone was laid four months later on July 3rd. Reverend Edward Fontaine, who had accompanied Mirabeau Lamar on the 1838 campaign trip to Waterloo that resulted in Austin’s construction on the upper Colorado River, delivered a stirring address in which he predicted, “[This] Capitol will stand erect and unscathed until the Heavens and Earth shall pass away.”
Meant to stand an eternity, the 1853 Texas Capitol lasted only 28 years. (Courtesy of the Austin History Center.)
Texas government moved into its new home in November, 1853. The Greek Revival structure formed a rectangle 140 long and 90 feet wide, with its longer side facing Congress Avenue. A broad staircase and portico with four columns adorned the building’s front. The first story consisted of rusticated yellow limestone blocks, with smooth-faced limestone covering the upper two stories. Diminutive in comparison to the rest of the building, the dome on top impressed no one. Nevertheless, upon viewing the Texas Capitol for the first time Frederick Law Olmstead (who co-designed New York's Central Park) described it as “a really imposing building.” A contemporary newspaper editor stated, “[The building] strikes with instant and pleasing effect the eye of the beholder.”
Various government departments occupied offices in the Capitol’s basement. The governor, attorney general, secretary of state and some other government offices claimed space on the first floor. Above them on the second floor were the Lieutenant Governor, chambers for the House and Senate and several committee rooms. The top floor held a library, museum, courtroom, viewer’s gallery and legislative offices.
Nimrod Norton used an office at the rear of the Senate chamber as a sleeping room. Shortly after noon on that fateful day in 1881 he excused himself from the Capitol Board meeting to fetch something from this room. Moments later he burst back into the House chamber and exclaimed, “Good God, gentlemen, the Capitol is on fire!”
When he went to fetch something from his office at the rear of the Senate chamber, Capitol Board member Nimrod Norton discovered smoke and flames filling the room.
Several days before, one of the attorney general’s clerks named C. Edmundson had hired a Mr. Erickson of Radkey’s Stove House to place a stove in his basement office. Erickson ran the stovepipe into a hole on the room’s east wall. Both he and Edmundson assumed this hole led into the adjacent room’s chimney flue. Unfortunately, the hole merely allowed passage of a pipe into this adjacent storeroom so that additional pipe could then be laid across the room to reach the flue on the other side. Edmundson’s stovepipe therefore directed smoke and cinders directly into the wall space.
From there smoke drafted upward to fill the space between the limestone forming the building’s floor and the wooden ceiling of the storeroom. As the Capitol Board met upstairs in the House chamber, the basement ceiling caught fire.
Advertisement in the 1885-86 Austin City Directory for J. R. Cummings' hardware store which carries Bernard Radkey's "tubular and galvanized iron awnings." One of Radkey's workers installed the stove that caused the 1881 Capitol fire.
No one noticed at first. By the time Nimrod Norton went to his sleeping room over Edmundson’s basement office smoke had filled the room and flames licked at his feet.
After warning his fellow board members he ran back to his room to save what he could. Thick black smoke overwhelmed him. Falling to the floor Norton began rolling in random directions but couldn’t find the exit. He thought he would die. Finally, he rolled through the opening and into the hall.
Meanwhile, Judge Lee ran from the House chamber to another office across the hall and also encountered smoke and flame. Lee and Norton both made it back to the House chamber and helped their colleagues hurriedly gather up the papers of their meeting. The six men then “with remarkable presence of mind and with singular unanimity” made their way downstairs and out of the building. It was not a hasty retreat. William Walsh later recalled that, because of the smoke, “we had to feel our way out.”
Capitol Board member William Walsh recalled having to feel his way through the smoke to escape the burning Capitol.
While Norton and the others fled for their lives a draftsman named Ernst von Rosenberg noticed smoke pouring out of the Capitol. He quickly found a telephone and notified the operator, who in turn called volunteer fireman John Bremond, Jr., who worked at the nearby General Land Office. Within minutes Austin’s entire firefighting force, made up of the men of Washington Fire Company #1 and Colorado Fire Company #2, each company equipped with one engine, arrived at the Capitol to battle the blaze.
Draftsman Ernst von Rosenberg was the first person to see the Capitol fire from outside the building.
Alas, they had no chance. The closest hydrants lay downhill several hundred feet away on the southwest corner of the Capitol grounds. The men attached their hoses, turned on the water, and watched the streams sputter feebly for only a few feet before splashing uselessly on the ground. Bremond later explained, “When the engines got to the building six fire engines could not have saved it.”
Stymied by a lack of water pressure, John Bremond's fire companies had no chance to extinguish the blaze at the Capitol.
As the firefighters stood by helplessly Austin’s citizens gathered around the grounds to watch the Capitol burn. Thick clouds of smoke drifted skyward and blew south across the river. Burning cinders flew with this cloud. Only the drizzling rain and the dampness of the ground prevented a disastrous city-wide conflagration.
Austin residents gather at the head of Congress Avenue to watch the Capitol burn on November 9, 1881. (Courtesy of the Austin History Center.)
The next morning a headline in the Austin Statesman blared “The State’s Calamity.” Sub-headlines revealed the tragic losses: “State Library and Museum Destroyed,” “Ancient Historical Collections a Total Loss,” and “The Pictures of Houston, Austin, Rusk and Davy Crockett Burned.” Providing a modicum of relief was the afterthought, “Most All the State Records Saved.” Officials later estimated the financial loss at $250,000.
Only the Capitol's limestone walls survived the 1881 fire.
As the embers still smoldered a jury was impaneled to ascertain the cause of the disaster. Investigators issued their report days later. Attorney General McLeary and his clerk Edmundson received the blame, Edmundson for allowing the stove to be improperly placed and McLeary for neglecting to keep an eye on the actions of his clerk. But while the jury cited both men for negligence, it declined to label their actions criminal. McLeary nevertheless publicly denounced the report, calling the fire “pure accident.” When Governor Roberts backed him, the issue lost steam.
Investigators blamed Attorney General James McLeary and his clerk C. Edmundson for the fire. McLeary vehemently denied responsibility.
While everyone mourned the loss of its contents, few bemoaned the destruction of the Capitol building itself. Immediately after the fire one reporter commented, “[The Capitol] bore a startling resemblance to a large sized corn crib with a pumpkin for a dome.” And in a 1957 article in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly historian Frederick W. Rathjen wrote, “The building itself was an eyesore and the only ones having cause to lament its passing were the bats who were left homeless.”
While Governor Roberts and the Capitol Board continued their work the suddenly homeless Texas government hurriedly threw up a temporary Capitol on the southwest corner of Congress Avenue and 11th Street. This building, which housed the first classes of the University of Texas in 1883, burned in 1899. By then no one cared, because just across the street sat the commanding pink granite beauty that we know and love today.
The 1888 Texas Capitol remains a beloved state landmark. (Photo by Jeffrey Kerr.)