The Burning of the Vermont State House
The Second Vermont State House
On the evening of January 6, 1857 fire swept through the Vermont State House. At roughly 7:00 PM the alarm of fire, which consisted of shouts and eventually the ringing of the bell at the Old Brick Church, sounded throughout the city and its citizens did all they could to quell the blaze. For decades the legislative session was held from early October until late November, so the State House would not normally have been occupied during the winter months. However, there was a meeting of the Constitutional Convention scheduled for January 7 at the State House, a once-in-a-decade event. To prepare for the meeting, the State House was to be heated. Sergeant-at-Arms Clark Stevens had hired Anson Davis to care for the building, which included not only heating and general upkeep in the winter, but also mowing and haying in the summer and fall months.
The building was heated by two furnaces, burning four foot logs and located under the Representative’s Hall. Cold air ducts were built into the State House to bring cold air in from the outside and regulate the heat around the hot furnaces which discharged heat to the floors above. In an alleged attempt to save the state a few cords of wood, Davis elected to close the cold air ducts in order to build up heat in the building more quickly (a story Davis later refuted, stating that he only did so after the fire started in order to stop the draught feeding it). The lack of air circulation caused a buildup of heat around the furnaces and it is rumored that a pile of wood shavings beneath the floorboards that had been left behind from the building of the State House years earlier caught fire. The fire worked its way up and broke out around a register directly over one of the furnaces. When the fire was discovered, the alarm was sounded and citizens from all over Montpelier rushed out of stores and their homes and hurried to the scene to help fight the fire.
Fighting the Blaze
Although temperatures hovered around fifteen below zero, the citizens of Montpelier and men who had arrived from out of town for the convention were quick to act in an effort to save the State House. There was a lot of snow on the ground and a path had been cut up to the State House in preparation for the convention, leaving large chunks of snow on the sides of the path. Citizens carried these large frozen chunks of snow into the State House and packed the Representatives Hall with them, briefly containing the fire. While citizens were diligently working to quell the fire, the Montpelier fire department was struggling with a lack of water, as the Winooski River was more than 1,000 feet away. Their pumps struggled to get water up to the State House, leaving little more than ribbons of ice as the steam pumper pushed it from the hose. The engine of the pumper was constantly stoked with wood until the freezing temperatures finally overran the mechanism and it came to a halt. As men worked hard, packing snow around the register and feeling that the fire was under control, the fire was working its way under the raised floor and up the partitions and suddenly, in what resident George A. Peck described as like a “blast from a cannon” flames burst out around the base of the dome and the floors began falling in. Men who were in the library trying to save what they could were forced to jump out the windows to escape the fire and collapsing flooring. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.
When it became evident that the building could not be saved, citizen began the process of saving what they could from the burning State House. While a great many items were destroyed, a number of random items were saved, much of which was furniture. There were, however, several notable items salvaged, including a portrait of Judge Williams, a bust of Judge Paine and the portrait of George Washington that now hangs in the House Chamber. Resident T.C. Barrows and three other men managed to remove the Washington painting, while still in its frame, and carried it over their heads and out into the vestibule and there it was passed on to others, who took the portrait away from the State House and to a home on State Street. Another group of men managed to salvage some of the materials from the State Library, located in the building. While many of the materials that had been collected by Henry Stevens were burned, the forty-two manuscript Vermont State Papers collection were saved and survive to this day in the Vermont State Archives. Books that were saved were taken to the home of Daniel Baldwin. The mineralogical collection was lost, as were many of the records of the Vermont Historical Society. Historian Dorman B.E. Kent, writing years later in an unpublished manuscript states, “Just how much of the Society’s effects were saved, if indeed anything at all, is unknown. In the writer’s opinion it was all destroyed, for but very few things are known to have been taken out of that burning building.” Several pieces of furniture from the senate were also allegedly saved, as were the Bennington Cannons, which sustained slight damage. Beyond these items, little else, if anything is known to have survived.
The Remains of the State House
A General Conflagration?
As the State House was burning, a strong western wind began to blow. Snow was swept up from the roof and garden and mixed with hot ash and burning embers and blown a half mile across town, setting down on the roofs of numerous buildings. The Watchman & State Journal reported that for some time there was “not merely the possibility, but a strong probability, of a general conflagration” of the whole town. A number of citizens stood atop the roofs of their homes and used brooms to sweep the ash away before any damage could be done. The Catholic Church, which stood near the State House, had its steeple catch fire briefly, but it was quickly brought under control and the building saved. On the morning of January 7, citizens awoke to see their roofs covered with ash, their homes saved from catching fire only by the covering of snow on the roofs.
By 11:00 PM the State House was left a shell of its former self. Everything burnable inside the building had been destroyed, with only the granite walls still standing. The Watchman & State Journal reported, “It is unnecessary to say that this loss is felt as a loss to every citizen, not simply of the town, but of the state.” Some of the pillars had been burned by the intense heat, but remained structurally sound and were incorporated into the new, current State House, completed in 1859. The areas where the pillars were scorched can still be seen on the building today.
Durfee, Eleazer D. and D. Gregory Sanford. A Guide to the Henry Stevens, Sr. Collection at the Vermont State Archives.
George A. Peck correspondence with Mary Greene Nye. Mary Green Nye’s Papers –“Documentary History of Vermont,” Folder 18 – State House Building. Vermont State Archives, Office of the Secretary of State, Montpelier, Vermont.
“How the Fire Happened.” Burlington Free Press. January 16, 1857.
Journal of the Proceedings and Debates of the General Assembly of Vermont, at the Special Session, Feb., 1857. Montpelier: E.P. Walton, 1857.
Kent, Dorman B.E. The Vermont Historical Society. Unpublished manuscript, Vermont Historical Society, Barre, Vermont.
Robbins, Daniel. The Vermont State House: A History & Guide.
Sherman, Rachel Cree. “…Never did two contending armys…” Vermont History News 39(4)1988: 71-73.
Thompson, Daniel P. History of the Town of Montpelier. Montpelier: E.P. Walton, 1860.
Walton, E.P. “Fire at the State House!” Watchman & State Journal. January 9, 1857.