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Capitol burns

Capitol burns

Combined accounts from various stories in the Tribune archive.

Ninety years ago — December 28, 1930 — thousands of people gathered on what was then the north side of Bismarck to watch as a Sunday morning fire destroyed the state Capitol.

Their emotions were mixed. Certainly they were excited, but more than a few were grieved by the passing of the old building. The cornerstone of the state Capitol had been laid in 1883 and it had been visited by such famous names as Ulysses S. Grant and Sitting Bull. President Theodore Roosevelt had given a speech from its south portico. The great men of North Dakota's past — men like John Miller, John Burke, George Winship and King John Satterlund — had strode down its hallways. It had been a home to North Dakota government since statehood, and had been the territorial Capitol before that. A lot of history was going up in flames that cold Sunday morning.

The Bismarck Fire Department never stood a chance.

With only one pumper and a hose truck that had to be hauled up the hill by a telephone company truck, the three full-time firefighters and a dozen volunteers could do little to stop the almost complete destruction of the North Dakota Capitol building.

At first there was some confusion about the alarm. Was the Capitol or the Capitol Theatre ablaze?

"When we got to Sixth Street there wasn't any doubt," recalled one firefighter.

The call came in about 8 a.m. on a Sunday. Back then, the alarm didn't ring at the fire hall, but at the taxi company, where an employee would then push a button activating the siren to summon the volunteers. At first the taxi company employee didn't believe the alarm, and it took three tries to get a response.

Even with the fire department at the scene, there was little firefighters could do. The fire was well underway, and with only an ancient 6-inch water main to fuel the hoses, the firefighters could scarcely get any water on the fire itself.

A crowd of people arrived to watch the fire, which not only made for a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, but also threw off enough heat to negate the 16-degrees-below-zero temperature. Many in the crowd helped haul files and equipment out of the building.

Alvin Ode, Bismarck's future fire chief, recalled the fire years later, "I was 12-years-old. We had a dairy farm at what is now 13th Street and Boulevard Avenue.  I was feeding cattle from the hayloft and saw the fire. So I took off cross country over the hill. A neighbor, Russell Reid, State Historical Society Director, was there. He boosted me into the window of the governor's office and I handed him down pictures off the wall."

The most dramatic rescue, according to the Tribune account of the fire, was that of the state constitution. Secretary of State Robert Byrne and his deputy, Charles Liessman, broke a window and made their way into the burning building . They opened the door to the vault and then Byrne escaped through the broken window, clutching the original copy of the state constitution.

Byrne cut his hand on the broken glass, but was otherwise okay.

Jennie Ulsrud, an employee in the state treasurer's office, suffered the only other reported injury. Her hand was injured when it was struck by a heavy book, thrown from a window, while she was gathering up papers on the Capitol grounds.

By 9 a.m., the scene was an inferno, and salvagers were ordered out of the building.

"By afternoon the structure was nothing but a mass of slow-smoldering embers and ash," reported the Tribune.

The fire didn't exactly destroy the old building. In fact, almost all of the shell was left standing. Several months later, children at the old Will School, which was then at the site where the Provident Life building now stands, were trooped up to the site of the present McCabe United Methodist Church to watch as the ruins of the old Capitol were dynamited.

The old building, erected in 1885, was considered a ramshackle affair, poorly constructed, inefficient and long recognized as a fire hazard.

As early as 1905, the Legislature appropriated $600,000 for a new building, but the Supreme Court held the action to be unconstitutional. The following year, Governor E.Y. Sarles called for a new building, but no action was forthcoming.

Other governors, notably John Burke, called public attention to the poor condition of the Capitol, and in 1927, Gov. Arthur Sorlie encouraged development of a Capitol building program.

It's likely the building would eventually have been replaced, but because of the Depression, North Dakota got its new Capitol for about $2 million, a bargain even for the time.

The cause of the fire is still unknown. Arson was talked about but no evidence of it was found.

The most popular conclusion was that the fire began in a janitor's room on the fourth floor. Officials claimed it was spontaneous combustion among varnish, rags and turpentine stored in the room. These materials had been used for refinishing desks in preparation for the approaching session. However, the Capitol custodian at the time, William Laist, claimed all paint and rags had been removed from the room.



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