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This day in history: Madison Capitol fire of 1904

Nearly 120 years ago today, a pivotal moment in Madison’s history took place.


The capitol was lost in the billows of smoke. | Photo via WI Historical Society, 1906

Table of Contents

February 27, 1904, at 2:30 a.m.: A gas burner tucked away in a closet of the capitol building sets fire to the woodworking, which quickly spreads.

This was the beginning of the 1904 Wisconsin State Capitol Fire. When Governor Robert La Follette — aka Fighting Bob — got wind of the news, he quickly sprang to action and proved his nickname worthy. Gov. La Follette assisted the firefighters and even went as far as to run through the burning building in order to save important documents.

After 18 hours, with the help of two firefighting companies from Milwaukee, the fire was put out. It caused ~$1 million in damages and destroyed records from the Civil War and Spanish American War.

Since all state offices were housed in the capitol building, other major cities were hopeful that this fire would be an opportunity for them to take over the role of Wisconsin’s capital city. Thankfully, Fighting Bob not only fought fires but also fought off State Sen. Charles Cassius Rogers’ bill that called for Milwaukee to become the capital city in light of the fire.

The reconstruction of the capitol lasted from 1906-1917. The final product is the same building standing today.

reconstruction of state capitol

13 years after the fire, the capitol that we know + love today was completed. | Photo via WI Historical Society, 3482

Old Abe

Thankfully, no lives were lost to the inferno, but one taxidermied bald eagle did not make it out. Old Abe was rescued from a fallen tree by Chief Big Sky of the Lake Superior Ojibwe. In 1861, the bird was traded to a man in Eau Claire who eventually found it to be too much work. Old Abe was sold to the Eau Claire Badgers militia company — which later became the Eighth Wisconsin Infantry — for $2.50.

When Abraham Lincoln rallied troops to fight in the Civil War, Old Abe traveled south, saw nearly 40 battles, and became an inspirational symbol in the process. “I heard [Confederate] prisoners say they would have given more to capture the eagle of the Eighth Wisconsin [Infantry], than to take a whole brigade of men” said one member of the Iron Brigade.

Old Abe died in March 1881 and was an enduring symbol of our state’s Civil War history.

old abe

Today, there is an Old Abe replica in the Assembly Chambers. | Image via WI Historical Society, 78748