Dakota Datebook

Territorial Capitol

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


In November of 1883, the new capitol building was beginning to tower heavenward. Under the watchful eye of Superintendent John Wright, the brick face and the stone columns were being completed through the second floor. The dome and outer wall were approaching the third floor, and it was promised by Mr. Wright that the building would be enclosed by winter.


The fact that the Capitol had even gotten to this level of construction was amazing. The bill to move the capital from Yankton was passed in the spring. Then the Capital Commission, a group of nine men, traveled around the territory visiting and assessing the various locations that aspired for the distinction. On June 2, 1883 they announced their decision to make Bismarck the new territorial capital. Tempers flared and the southern faction of the territory threatened to bring the choice up to a vote of the people. But the people of Bismarck and of the northern half of the territory moved quickly, and it became evident that the capital was in Bismarck to stay.


The new building had an architectural mixture of Romanesque and Classical Revival and contained a large dome in the center. Although the work went quickly, construction was labor intensive in the 1880s and occasionally accidents occurred. On this date in 1883, six construction workers were lucky to be alive. At 9 o’clock, the preceding morning, the six men stepped upon the elevator on the third floor. The elevator was filled with wheelbarrows, hods for the mortar, bricks and timbers. Suddenly a clamp holding the elevator loosened and the six men shot down the elevator, riding it a distance of fifty feet before crashing to the bottom of the shaft. Although it was first thought that William Buxton and Daniel O’Neil were killed, the two workers survived their internal injuries and concussions. The other four men fared better, although Andrew Johnson had his right arm nearly severed.


Work progressed, and the building was completed in time for the 1885 Session. It remained North Dakota’s Capitol Building until it was destroyed by fire on December 28, 1930. Its style graced the prairie sky for almost four decades. With its impressive size and its location on a hill overlooking the Missouri River Valley, it led a Bismarck Tribune reporter to state that a visitor could “gaze upon more Dakota soil in a minute than they can see by travel in a month.” One can imagine what he would say now gazing down from the current Capitol, the “Skyscraper on the Prairie.”


Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis




The Bismarck Weekly Tribune November 9, 1883

The Bismarck Tribune November 9, 1883


The Jamestown Alert November 9, 1883


This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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