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Missouri to mark 100th anniversary of Capitol's burning

Friday, February 4, 2011 | 4:39 p.m. CST; updated 9:45 p.m. CST, Saturday, February 5, 2011
The Missouri Capitol burns after being struck by lightning the evening of Feb. 5, 1911, in Jefferson City. City firefighters, state penitentiary inmates and fire crews from Sedalia, Mo., who rushed by train to assist from more than 60 miles away, fought the blaze, but the building was a total loss.

JEFFERSON CITY — A photo tucked in a basement hallway of the Missouri Capitol shows an old incarnation of the building in a dramatic moment: Flames shoot from its windows and smoke curls off the soil in the foreground, blurring the structure's stately columns at the moment the camera flashed.

That moment was reality on the muggy night of Feb. 5, 1911, when witnesses said a lightning bolt struck a lamp on the Capitol building, igniting a blaze visible from 20 miles away. City firefighters streamed toward the inferno, assisted by units from the local prison and cities as far away as Sedalia.

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Dozens of fire trucks, lights flashing and horns blaring, will circle the statehouse again Saturday, and state fire marshal Randy Cole and Jefferson City Mayor John Landwehr will read proclamations as the city commemorates the fire's centennial.

Jefferson City artist Jim Dyke will show a collection of artifacts at his gallery as well as a new oil painting he has done of the fire scene that depicts the train that had come from Sedalia to help. The train, loaded with fire equipment, traveled 63 miles in 78 minutes, a record at the time.

Gary Kremer, the executive director of the State Historical Society in Columbia, said Sedalia's help was notable because it had once competed fiercely with Jefferson City to be the capital city.

"It's always struck me as kind of ironic," Kremer said of Sedalia's aid train.

Many state records were lost in the fire, but others were saved by prisoners and townspeople. Those that are preserved in the State Archives — including an 1865 resolution that ended slavery in the state — are torn and browned where flamed licked the edges of the paper a century ago.

Other photos in the bowels of the current Capitol show its construction in the years after the fire. Its massive steel skeleton is seen rising from the dirt and filling out with limestone from Carthage, through the spring of 1915. Around its front, 22 pillars are shown steadily inching toward a massive dome towering over the Missouri River.

Six and half years after the fire, the new Capitol was completed and ready to be occupied. The state had authorized $3.5 million in bonds to fund the construction with a bill that also required the Capitol to be located in Jefferson City. Kremer said that extinguished any remaining debate about whether Sedalia could become the Capitol.

The Capitol today is three times the size of the one that burned. Kremer said the difference was welcomed by those who thought the Capitol was too small to house all of the government's functions, as it did in 1911.

"In the decade after the new Capitol was built was when the state government grew the fastest it ever has," Kremer said.

Dyke said that as he picked up a piece of fencing that had surrounded the original Capitol for his collection, he was struck by the historical significance of the collection of ruins.

"These things haven't been in the same place together for almost one hundred years," he said.


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