The old capitol building was in poor condition and too small for the growing state government. Even before the fire, Governor Shafer had planned to ask the legislature for an appropriation for a new building. Around the state, newspaper editors tended to think of the fire as an easy way to push forward the building of a new capitol. They also noted for local authorities the necessity of safeguarding important city and county documents from fire. Few people seemed upset about the loss of the original capitol; nevertheless, it was important to try to determine the cause of the fire.
There were many possibilities, including arson which was the least credible theory, but the discussion tended to boil down to two probable sources: electric wiring or spontaneous combustion.
On Monday, December 29, the Bismarck Tribune reported on the statements of the State Engineer, R. E. Kennedy, whose office was on the top floor. Kennedy discounted an electrical cause and argued that the fire was caused by spontaneous combustion developing from turpentine- and varnish-soaked rags left in the building by janitors who had recently cleaned and varnished legislators’ desks. Kennedy pointed out that the capitol had its own electric plant (in the maintenance buildings east of the capitol) which did not operate on weekends. Until 1929, janitors and guards used coal oil lamps at night and on weekends to light their work, but after lamps nearly caused a fire, the capitol installed city electricity to power a few after-hours lights in the building. Because the main power source was not connected over the weekends, Kennedy stated that the source of the Sunday morning fire could not have been electrical.
William (Billy) Laist, the chief custodian of capitol buildings, earnestly and logically argued against the spontaneous combustion theory. All rags used with oil, varnish, and turpentine had been removed from the building as soon as the refurbishing of the desks was complete. In addition, the night watchman regularly patrolled the building, clocking in at several stations at regular intervals to insure adequate security. When guard Joe Winkel heard a loud crack from the fourth floor, he passed the janitor’s closet on the way to check on the noise, but did not see any smoke or fire there. When he got to the fourth floor, he found the fire was well underway and working up to the attic. Laist hinted at electrical problems as the cause of the fire, but could not use the watchman’s clocks as evidence for his detailed security routine because they had burned up in the fire.
Assistant Fire Marshal Frank Barnes’ report appeared in the Bismarck Tribune on January 2, 1931. He sided with Kennedy. The cause he said, could not be determined with absolute certainty, but was most likely due to spontaneous combustion related to the varnish-soaked rags. The fire most likely started in the janitor’s closet, but burned upward into the fourth floor and was not visible at the closet door.
Years later, Fire Chief Alvin Ode who worked in Bismarck’s Fire Department from 1948 to 1982, said that he believed the final determination was that the fire started in faulty wiring in the attic. Ode, as a twelve year old boy, was one of the first people on the scene of the fire. He entered the building at the request of Russell Reid, Director of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, to help retrieve portraits of former governors from offices in the southwest corner of the building.
Alvin Ode Interview (1989) - Click "Access this item." in the new window
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