Charleston, WV Capitol Fire, Jan 1921


Only the Shell Is Left of Handsome Brick Building at Charleston.


Loss of Several Millions Covered by Insurance---Origin of Flames Unknown.

Special to The New York Times.

CHARLESTON, W.Va., Jan. 3.----The Capitol of West Virginia, together with priceless records of some of the departments of the State Government, was destroyed late this afternoon by a fire of mysterious origin. Only the brick shell remains of the once stately building.

The loss amount to several millions of dollars, which is covered by a blanket insurance policy of $6,000,000 on all the State buildings.

The fire started in the small record room over the office of the Secretary of the Public Service Commission.

Two men were killed at 5 o'clock when a section of the roof fell in. The dead are:

EDWARD SPENCER, an electrician, and HOWARD PAULEY, fireman.

Fire Chief W. W. Graham, Policeman William Lacey and Fireman Oscar Thaxton were injured. Chief of Police John Charnock had a narrow escape. The chief and some of his men were in the Tax Commissioner's office pitching records out of the windows. As they started down a ladder there was a roar and a cloud of smoke as part of the roof fell.

The firemen said that another man was with them and that he was buried beneath the debris. His name could not definitely be learned. There were reports that he was Charles Walker of Huntington.

The fire started about 2:30 o'clock on the fourth floor of the Capitol, which is seldom used, except for the storing of records and stationery. The office of the Public Service Commission gave the alarm. By the time the Fire Department was able to pour water on the building it was doomed.

E. E. Winters, Chief Railroad Inspector of the commission, narrowly escaped being buried alive. He played a stream of water on the blaze from a small hose and remained at his post until his face was scorched. Winters gained freedom by descending a back stairway which was burning.

One of the losses was in the burning of the Museum of the State Department of Agriculture, which, it is said, cannot be equaled in any agricultural department of the country. The old clock in the tower, whose weights were of many tons, is a complete loss.

In a statement tonight, Governor Cornwell said:

"Of course, this fire is little short of a calamity to the State because of the records that have been destroyed in the various departments, which will occasion inconvenience to many persons. It cannot be ascertained just yet how much of the records of several of the departments was saved or what will be the state of those in the various vaults.

"The monetary loss will not be great. We have insurance on all the State buildings, in a blanket policy, for all the insurance companies will carry. The total insurance carried is approximately $6,000,000. So it will be seen that the State can collect all it is entitled to for this building, based, of course, upon its valuation.

"I will call a meeting of the State officers tomorrow morning to make arrangements of the legislative session. My thought now is that the Senate can be housed in the Young Men's Christian Association building and auditorium and the House of Delegates in the armory. Those buildings are close together and will do very well in an emergency such as this.

"The biggest trouble will be to find room for the various departments, some of which have a great many clerks and stenographers. The Chamber of Commerce has offered its services in the matter. There are no vacant buildings or offices in Charleston, but offers are already coming to me from private citizens, from churches and elsewhere, and I am quite sure that all of the departments will be functioning again in a few days."

William Briggs, a prisoner in the West Virginia Penitentiary at Moundsville, three weeks ago predicted that the State Capitol would be destroyed either by fire or a bomb explosion, according to a prominent Charleston attorney who refused to be quoted. Briggs did not predict the date.

Officials are working to determine the origin of the fire.

The New York Times, New York, NY 4 Jan 1921