The Day The Capitol Burned

Sunday evening, February 5, 1911. Unusually warm. A thunderstorm approached the state capitol from the west and lightning struck the dome around suppertime.

Monsignor Joseph Selinger remembers, “I was standing on the front steps of the hospital [Saint Mary’s] about 5:30 when a heavy cloud from the west seemed to hiss with lightning, followed by peals of thunder.

One flash struck the four armed electric wires [lightning rod] on the lantern of the dome, which had long since been dismantled. The inside of the dome gradually filled with smoke The lightning had ignited the dead wires. The wood soon began to burn, and fell to the base.”

“After extinguishing a burning basement door, the workers discovered that 400 gallons of explosive disinfectant had been stored behind it.” Had the fire reached the disinfectant, the resulting blast would have killed all of the workers combing through the ruins. “At the time at least thirty men were carrying books from the basement.”

Photos, courtesy of the Cole County Historical Society, appear in The Day the Capitol Burned by Joseph S. Summers, Jr. (the first book I ever edited, now out of print).

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