Madison County, Iowa


Winterset Madisonian, Thursday, October 7, 1875, Page 2


The Best Court House in the State in Ashes!


The Town Barely Saved

Winterset, Oct. 2, 1875

At 11 o’clock today the cry of fire was heard. The Court House was discovered to be on fire. The fire broke out in the gable of the east wing and soon communicated with the dome. The wind was blowing a fearful gale from the south and nothing could be done to arrest the flames. The north side of the square was in imminent danger and took fire several time but the heroic exertions of the Fire Company, and citizens generally, saved it. The Engine was disabled almost at the start and the work had to be done entirely with buckets. Too much praise cannot be awarded both the Company and people.

Most, if not all the Record Books were saved. The money in the Treasury was taken out for safety. The prisoners in the jail were released and placed under guard as soon as the alarm was given.

Just how the fire originated is not definitely known, and probably never will be. Some think it was an incendiary, and others that it caught from the north-east flue. Had the dome of the Court House been blown with the high wind to the north, instead of falling directly down, the north side of the square, and a large portion of that part of the city, would have been in ashes before sundown.

Great excitement prevailed for some time, and the north side merchants commenced to remove their stocks. Mayor Jellison immediately put on a large police force, and the city will be strongly guarded for several days. However, it will be well for citizens to keep a sharp look-out tonight for thieves and dead-beats.

3 P. M. – No accidents have occurred. The massive stone columns and walls are now falling with tremendous crashes.

Monday, Oct. 4th. – The foregoing account of the fire was issued as an extra on Saturday while the fire was yet burning. But little more remains to be told. Fire was communicated to several roofs and stables, some of them four blocks away, in the north part of town, but everything was so closely watched that no damage of any moment was inflicted. The Fire Company mounted men and patrolled streets and alleys. The heat was so intense, even on the windward side of the square that roofs and cornices had to be kept watered. Had it not been Saturday when so large a number form the country were in town, and had it not been that our friends from the country took hold and worked as hard as men could work, carrying water, standing on roofs, pumping, etc., the north part of town must have gone.

For ourself, for many others who have requested us to do so, and in the name of all our people whose property was I danger we return thanks to the people of both town and country and to the Fire Company for their prompt exertions, their laborious work, and their kindness in the matter.

Fortunately, the Court House dome was undermined by the fire and dropped down on the courtroom floor as easy and as straight as it was possible to fall. It sat there upon the floor and burned up. The bell was found in the cellar, melted.

Most of the stone can be used in a new building and perhaps the value of the material that can be thus used will exceed $20,000. The unanimous opinion expressed by every one so far as we know, and we have heard a large number express themselves, is for a new Court House to be built just as soon as soon as it can be built; and as Madison county has led the State, for the new building, not only continue so to do, but to excel the one in ashes and be fire proof. Let the steps necessary therefore be taken at once.

It is a great pity the present building was not insured. The Madisonian had urged the insurance time and time again for the last two years; and until it became tiresome. The expense of insurance would have been nothing almost. If every smoker in the county had smoked one cigar less a year the money saved would have about paid the cost of an insurance of $50,000. But crying over spilled milk will not mend the matter now.

The County Board is in session now and will engage temporary rooms for the officers. We will perhaps be able to announce where, in this issue. No record or paper of any value was burned, so that the business of the county will go on at once as usual.

No person was injured. The post office watch dog followed his master into the Court House and was caught by the fire and burned.

The flames spread very rapidly. In less than an hour and a half after the alarm was given the building was in ashes and the naked walls standing. Two gables, the east and the west one, fell out and buried and broke the porticos under them. The iron lining of the jail slipped down half a story and there it hangs.


Winterset Madisonian, Thursday, October 14, 1875, Page 6

The Court House Fire

The following beautifully written description of the burning of our Court House we find in the Afton News:

            Saturday was a sad day for Madison County, her pride and boast – her magnificent Court House – standing out as a monument of her wealth and beauty, was in an hour reduced to a shapeless mass of ruins. How the fire originated is not known. The smoke was seen issuing from the roof by Conductor Burnett about noon. Alarm was given, hundreds of people rushed to the scene, but how could the seat of the fire be reached, it was impossible. Some efforts were made in that direction, but proved fruitless.

            Sea of upturned faces, all excitement, all horror stricken, swayed and surged about the ample park in helpless despair. Many however were busy and their efforts were well directed. Ere the floors of the first and second stories yielded, the records were removed and the prisoners in the lofty jail cared for. By this time the flames had burst through the stony slate roof and lurid sheets of flame were climbing the towering dome. It was a grand and awe-inspiring sight. Up to the clock, still marking on the ample disk the fleeting moments, the destroyer crept; and even when his red fingers were about his face, time’s hand marked the dial. But higher yet the flame climbed upward – to the lofty dome, and then it fell from its towering height on one hundred and sixty three feet spire, flag staff, dome and great bell, the sentinels which watched, over our proud county fell – down through jail room, court room, offices, basement – fell and crumbled into dust, while a vast volcano of flame, and ashes, and coals of fire leaped into the air form the blackened craterlike walls, like demons of the Judgment Day.

Transcribed by Kent G. Transier

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