Holy Cow! History: Wisconsin’s million-dollar blunder

File this in that bulging category, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Exactly 120 years ago this month, a lightbulb went off in someone’s head in Madison, Wisc. You can almost picture him excitedly shouting, “Hey guys, it just hit me. I know how we can save a boatload of money!”

And it would have, too, if something hadn’t gone terribly wrong.

Instead of saving taxpayer money, that idea wound up costing the state a fortune. Here’s how it happened.

Back in the early 1900s, Americans were filled with optimism. They had made it through a cataclysmic civil war and survived a string of painful economic downturns. The new century brought with it a new burst of daring to dream big.

In Wisconsin, some folks wondered if that might mean a new state capitol building. They were all the rage around the U.S. just then. Several states traded in their dowdy old Statehouses and upgraded to newer versions. “Get with the times,” progressives said. “This is the 20th century, after all.”

There certainly was a case for a new capitol. The beautiful structure built in 1863 that looked like a scaled-down version of the U.S. Capitol was nice enough. But 40 years later, it was just too small. The state government had exploded, and it simply couldn’t handle all the legislators and bureaucrats, mountains of state documents, records from tens of thousands of Wisconsin’s Civil War and Spanish-American war veterans, land grants, etc. It even housed a popular state museum whose relics included the preserved remains of Old Abe the War Eagle, who had flown to national fame during the War Between the States.

By 1903, legislators began exploring new digs to call home. As they pondered the possibility, the lightbulb mentioned earlier flashed on in someone’s head. Instead of paying $800 annually for the capitol’s $600,000 insurance policy, why not self-insure? After all, $800 was a lot of money at the time — roughly the annual salary for a state government employee. Better to put that money into the State Insurance Fund and watch it grow than hand it over to a private insurance company.

So that’s just what state officials did. The policy was allowed to lapse in January 1904.

Then, the unimaginable happened five weeks later.

Highly polished woodwork was in vogue during the Edwardian era. Wisconsin’s capitol had a bunch of it, and it had been just freshly varnished.

Sometime late on the night of Feb. 26, a gas light fixture’s flame ignited the oil-based substance. The capitol had a remarkably advanced sprinkler and firefighting system for the time. But good as it was, it was no use. All that polished wood sent flames spreading in every direction.

The building was fully engulfed in minutes. Madison’s fire department arrived, but when its hoses were pointed at the blaze, nothing happened. City water tanks had been drained earlier in the day so a boiler could be cleaned. There was no pressure. The nearby University of Wisconsin-Madison reservoir was also empty. An SOS was sent to Milwaukee and Jacksonville’s fire departments, whose units hopped aboard trains and sped to the scene. But when they arrived, the bitter cold temperature had frozen the water in their pumps.

Gov. Robert LaFollete personally directed rescue efforts. Despite his staff’s attempts to hold him back, he repeatedly dashed into the burning structure along with University of Wisconsin students, recovering paintings, papers, pieces of furniture, and anything they could carry out. They salvaged a handful of important items, such as a collection of silk Civil War battle flags, but not much else. Three hours later, Lafollette was soaked to the bone. His doctor ordered him to go home and change into dry clothes.

The fire burned for 18 hours. When the final flames were snuffed out, there wasn’t much left. The building’s east and west wings were gone; little of the south wing and rotunda remained. Only the north wing survived, and Wisconsin’s government crowded into it.

A new, bigger, grander capitol was finished in 1917. For the price of an additional $800 annual premium, the old building would have been fully insured at the time of the fire. Instead, Wisconsin citizens were stuck with a $7.25 million bill (roughly $250 million today) for the replacement.

Perhaps the most grieved item lost in the blaze was Old Abe’s taxidermic remains. It caused great sorrow among aging Civil War veterans.

A replica of the famous warbird was placed on a perch inside the State Assembly chamber. It remains there today, a powerful symbol of Wisconsin’s illustrious past — and a visual reminder to lawmakers to avoid being penny-wise and pound-foolish, too.

Holy Cow! History is written by novelist, former TV journalist and diehard history buff J. Mark Powell. Have a historic mystery that needs solving? A forgotten moment worth remembering? Please send it to [email protected].