Wisconsin State Law Library

Serving the Wisconsin Supreme Court and State of Wisconsin

Skip to content

Website Catalog

Library Highlights

February 25, 2011

Celebrating Our History: the 1904 Capitol Fire

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the Wisconsin State Law Library. The following is reprinted from our February newsletter

107 years ago this month, in the early hours of February 27, 1904, a freshly varnished ceiling in the Wisconsin State Capitol building's Assembly Post Office was found ablaze by a night watchman. Even though the Capitol building had "one of the most advanced firefighting systems of the day," the fire would spread during the ensuing hours due in part to the Capitol's water reservoirs on the roof of the university's Main Hall having been drained for cleaning that evening – unbeknownst to anyone at the Capitol.

At that time, the State Law Library was located on the second floor of the Capitol's north wing. Thick smoked filled the building, making the stairways impassable. Students from the nearby University of Wisconsin raised ladders to the windows of the library and, once inside, began throwing books haphazardly out the windows to the snow banks below. Upon seeing this, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice R. D. Marshall organized the salvage brigade into lines to pass the books hand-to-hand to nearby stores and wagons.

By the following day the fire had been extinguished, and the Library's books were eventually returned to their shelves. According to a later account of the fire, only about 100 volumes were lost in the blaze. Still in our collection, a sample of the surviving volumes is pictured in this post.

To learn more about the Wisconsin State Capitol fire of 1904, read Capitals and Capitols in Early Wisconsin.

  • "'Save the books,' was the Cry - The Day State Capitol Burned," Wisconsin State Journal, Dec. 20, 1972.
  • "Capitals and Capitols in Early Wisconsin," by Stanley H. Cravens. Feature article in Wisconsin Blue Book, 1983-1984 edition, pages 48, 50.
  • "State Library Will Be 100 Years Old this April," The Milwaukee Journal, Sunday Jan. 19th, 1936.

Blog Archive