Second Statehouse Burns; Debate Over Capitol Continues
By Senator Bill Doyle
A fire at 7 p.m. on January 6, 1857 created the need to construct a third Statehouse. The Statehouse was being heated for a septennial event, a constitutional convention. It is still a mystery where the convention met. The local newspapers did not report on the location. According to both Paul Gillies and Gregory Sanford, who compiled the record of the Council of Censors, the location may have been a church in Montpelier or the Washington County Courthouse. At this convention, amendments were defeated that would have included a four-year term for state senators and a House of Representatives based upon population rather than having each town allocated an individual representative.
The fire was fought by a substantial number of Montpelier citizens who carried chunks of snow to help put out the blaze. There were no pumps to supply water from the Winooski. Other citizens tried to clear everything that was moveable from the Statehouse. “The Washington portrait was taken in its frame by four men who held it high above their heads to keep it from injury. Much of the library was saved in much the same way. Papers from the Secretary of State’s office were saved and much of the collection of the Vermont Historical Society.”
“The fire was at work under the raised floor and up the partitions, and as sudden as a blast from a cannon, it burst out around the base of the dome. The floors were falling in and men in the library had to jump for their lives out of the windows. Fortunately, no one was killed or seriously injured. The sight of the burning building was both grand and terrible. The strong west wind that then prevailed blew a mass of live coals far over all the buildings east of the fire, and the morning after, the roofs of all the houses were covered with charcoal, showing that snow on the roofs alone saved these buildings. By 11 o’clock, everything burnable was destroyed, with only the granite walls where our beautiful Statehouse had been.”
While the building was out of use, the Senate convened in the Washington County Courthouse and the House met in a church.
As a result of the fire, a special session was called and the choice of the location of the capitol was between Burlington and Montpelier. The ensuing debate is discussed by Harold Bailey in an article entitled, “The Vermont State House.” These were the reasons given why Montpelier should not be the capital:
“Montpelier was unhealthy, it had fogs, and members of the legislature became sick as soon as they arrived.”
“Montpelier had no scenery. It was a hole in the hills, and it was so out of the way that travelers would never see the State House, and if they did, it would be crowded right against a hill.”
“It was not central. It might have been once, but not since the iron horse had come in.”
“Montpelier had been a capitol long enough. There wasn’t any obligation on the part of the state to maintain it any longer.”
“The people drank most nonchalantly and flouted the state prohibition law.”
Burlington came in for its share of criticism as well. Burlington was considered unhealthy. One of the House members said, “The north and northwest winds carry all the vapor and dampness of the Lake from Plattsburgh and throw them directly on Burlington. Some physicians of Burlington have, for many years, taught the necessity of shutting houses in winter. In November double windows were usually put up and not open until April.” Another criticism was that “a female was rarely seen in the street. I have visited 150 cities in Europe and this country, yet my impression is I never saw so much consumption anywhere as in Burlington in proportion to its population in the same class of people. The disease was chiefly with the best people.” Burlington’s situation on the Lake was dangerous from a military point of view. A Statehouse located there would be exposed to British cannonballs.
Burlington was Yorkish in character. It was not typical of Vermont. To go to Burlington was like going out of the state. The cost of living would have been much higher in Burlington. Hotels and meals in Burlington would be $2 a day, while it was only $1.50 in Montpelier. One legislator said, “As to the morals of Burlington, the case of someone having his pocket picked at the state fair was mentioned. What kind of a place would that be for a capital?”
Next week: Third Statehouse is constructed
Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or call 223-2851.