Madisonians awoke the morning of February 27, 1904, to the smell of smoke and a 7:30 a.m. extra edition of the Madison Democrat proclaiming CAPITOL BURNED.
The fire, which had been discovered shortly after 3 a.m. in the west wing, was still burning. Night watchman Nat Cramton had noticed the flames, thrown a few pails of water on them, and then called in the alarm by 3:30. Precious minutes were lost when firemen could not find the water connection in the building. At first the fire was not thought to threaten the whole structure, but it ate its way rapidly, and the alarm became general. Some passersby said they saw no flame, just strange lights in the building. They watched a fireman rip out a window frame, and then saw the fire’s glow inside the wall. Someone reported being in a committee room earlier that evening and it being so hot that he had to open the window; it was possible the fire was already working its way through the building hours before Cramton saw it. Fire Chief Charles Bernard put the Capitol hose in service, but the water pressure from the university source was too weak. Some said boilers were being cleaned at the UW, so there was no pressure. Then firemen had to resort to city mains, losing even more time. Meanwhile, the chemical wagon was being used with little effect. Before long the blaze shot skyward through the roof and appeared in the east wing. A shower of sparks was carried by the light breeze northwesterly over the Post Office and City Hall onto the ice of Lake Mendota.
By morning spectators were arriving in Madison by wagon and train. The burning Capitol seen from Wingra Park was a thing of beauty; the dome visible only when the wind carried off the smoke. Citizens with Kodaks on the grounds were numerous, fifty boys were selling the Madison Democrat extras, and there was some looting, but most bystanders did what they could to help.
Volunteers carried records and furniture from the building in the 16 degree temperature. Governor Robert La Follette took charge, wading through ankle deep water and slush, making sure the governors’ portraits were saved. At first books were thrown out of windows into the snow, then later were carried out in an organized fashion. One man in an upper story window shouted for the crowd to clear a space, then threw out a spittoon, which promptly shattered on the ground.
At the time, all of the state offices were located in the Capitol. A significant number were burned, along with the Senate and Assembly chambers. Fortunately, the Wisconsin Historical Society had been moved from the west wing, which was totally gutted, to its new fireproof building in 1899. Otherwise, its records would have been lost. The Grand Army of the Republic hall was not so lucky. All records of the Civil War, Spanish American War, and Philippines insurrection were destroyed, along with portraits, pictures, and the preserved body of Wiconsin’s Civil War eagle, Old Abe. The state’s Civil War battleflags were saved only because they had been on display in the rotunda.
The state was faced with paying the entire cost of reconstruction, estimated as high as $3 million, for the insurance policies on the Capitol had expired in 1903 and the legislature had decided to self-insure. (On February 28, the new L. E. Stevens ad in the Democrat announced: “State Capitol Burned. It Pays to Insure.”)