Most Madisonians know that the Capitol caught fire and burned in 1904, killing no one but causing so much damage that the state decided to erect a brand new structure. Fewer remember the deadly collapse of one of the building’s wings twenty-one years earlier.
In 1883 workers began extending the south wing of the Capitol. At the time, the Capitol hosted all state departments, and more space was needed. At 1:40 in the afternoon on November 8, 1883, a “deafening crash startled the city.. The immediate forerunner of the crash was a peculiar cracking sound, like the rending of heavy timbers or the buckling of a wall. This grew louder and louder, fiercer and fiercer, ascending by a rapid scale to a terrific climax of a crash.”
Great clouds of dust directed thousands to the site of the disaster, including a young schoolboy named Frank Lloyd Wright, and wives, brothers, sisters and fathers of the workmen. As reported by the Wisconsin State Journal: “The roof and south side of the wing of the extension had caved in, and groans and cries could be heard, as men, suffering untold agony, endeavored to call for assistance from within the cloud of dust that hid them from view... After the veil had floated away, strong, brave men rushed in despite the danger which threatened from walls which appeared ready to fall at any moment... Here and there mangled workmen could be seen hanging by their crushed legs between jagged planks, twisted rods and bent beams, gesturing wildly for assistance.”
Since Madison had no hospital, the wounded and dying were carried to the offices of the governor, insurance commissioner and quartermaster general, or to their own homes.
The first victim pulled from the ruins was Barney Higgins, a mason’s laborer. William Edgar was found beside Higgins under the debris, horribly crushed. The mangled body of Michael Zwank, a German mason, was extricated with much difficulty. William D. Jones of Milwaukee, the boss mason, was alive when rescued, but died soon after. James “Deerfield” Kelly, severely injured, lingered until 9:30 p.m. that evening. James Dowell, another mason, was found hanging upside down from the timbers with both legs broken; doctors agreed he would “not long survive.” Patrick O’Louglen was found under a pile of heavy timbers, but lived. Ed Gleason and Matthew Zwank, Michael’s son, received severe bruises to their heads. Michael J. Burke’s leg was broken and his face was badly cut. Patrick Cary was discovered under a pile of timbers with severe, though non-fatal injuries.
Within days there was an inquest into the cause of the collapse. Witnesses claimed to have seen floor-to-ceiling cracks in the walls. Andrew Downs, a carpenter, reported that he had used a jackscrew to elevate a damaged section of one wall, inserting a 6x6 timber under a cracked girder to hold the wall secure until it could be repaired. This girder supported an iron column which supported a second girder which supported a second iron column which supported the roof. On the day of the collapse, Billy Jones sent Matt Zwank for the jackscrew, and Downs removed it. Hours later the tragedy occurred. Ultimately, the inquest determined that the columns and other supports were not as thick as specified in the architect’s plans, and that plates on top of the columns were too small to distribute the weight of the roof appropriately.