Saturday, February 5, 2011

Missouri State Capitol fire centennial

On the evening of 5 February 1911, a bolt of lightning struck the dome of the Missouri State Capitol and started a fire that ultimately destroyed the building. As the flames ate away at the structure, government officials, residents of Jefferson City and nearby communities, and inmates from a nearby prison formed a human chain and salvaged what they could. Thanks to their efforts, the state seal, important land records, and the official record that abolished slavery in the state were rescued. However, other important records were lost and many of those that were saved were badly amaged; you can see an example here.

I haven't been able to find any photographs of the fire and its aftermath on the Missouri State Archives Web site, but the Kansas City Star has posted copies of nine State Archives photographs on its site. Given the extent of the damage -- the dome ultimately collapsed into the lower floors of the building -- it's amazing that no one perished and that so many important records were saved.

My own repository suffered similar losses fifty-two days later, when flames swept through the third and fourth floors of the New York State Capitol's western wing, which then housed the New York State Library. The building survived, but one person was killed and most of the State Library's holdings, which then included government records as well as books, periodicals, and manuscript collections, were either destroyed completely or suffered extensive damage.

A quick Google search reveals that until the second half of the 20th century, state capitol fires were depressingly commonplace events. Given the heavy usage of oil lamps and gaslights in the 19th century, the lack of safety standards during the first decades of the electric era, and the absence of smoke detectors, automated sprinkler systems, and other modern safety technologies for much of the 20th century, it's not surprising that so much of our documentary record has literally gone up in smoke.

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