Monday, December 28, 2009
The North Dakota State Capitol building burned to the ground on this date in 1930. The four-story, red-brick building burst into flames sometime during the night. Two state employees suffered injuries while attempting to save some of the files and records from the flames, but when all was said and done, most of the state’s records and documents were turned to ash, along with most of the building.
The story began earlier that evening as the building’s janitors worked into the night to clean and varnish the large wooden desks of the state’s legislative assembly. The assembly was set to meet on the sixth of January, and the workers had only a little over a week to prepare for the arrival of the representatives. Upon finishing, the janitors placed the oily rags in a closet in the state engineer’s office, on the top floor of the building. Spontaneous combustion in those rags is believed to be the likely cause of the fire.
The varnish acted as an accelerant, and the entire upper story was soon consumed. Secretary of State Robert Byrne arrived to the scene even before the firemen. Byrne broke a window on the ground floor to rescue the state constitution, which he successfully pulled from the fire. Jennie Ulsrud, another state employee, was able to save several records from the treasurer’s office, although burning her hands quite severely in the process. The fire burned at such a high temperature, that firemen could do little but watch the inferno along with the gathering crowd. Governor George Shafer had been in St. Paul, Minnesota, but when he arrived the following morning, the fire was still burning. Knowing full well the severity of the situation, the governor immediately called a meeting of the state legislators, who gathered directly in front of the burning Capitol. There, they laid plans not only for the upcoming assembly, but also for a new capitol building. This was 1930, and the Great Depression had just taken hold of the state.
Building a new capitol at this time required extreme frugality, and state officials did not disappoint. Cuts and labor disputes resulted in a price tag of less than two million dollars, or forty-six cents per cubic foot! After its completion in 1934, it quickly earned the nickname “skyscraper of the prairie,” and remains a visible landmark today for visitors to the capitol city.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
Winnipeg Free Press (Manitoba). December 29, 1930: p.1.