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January 17: A New Capitol Building

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As 1930 drew to a close, North Dakotans were in a state of shock. In the early hours of December 28, the guard on duty at the state capitol building heard a noise on the fourth floor and discovered a fire. He immediately called in a fire alarm. Bismarck’s two fire trucks and three firefighters quickly responded, but the blaze was out of control. As word of the disaster spread, citizens hurried to help.

State officials arrived, racing to get important documents out of the building. Secretary of state Robert Byrne climbed a ladder, entered through a window, and broke into his office. He handed documents out the window to assistant secretary of state Charles Liessman. The last document Byrne was able to rescue was the original North Dakota State Constitution.

After the fire, state offices were relocated to buildings around Bismarck, and the legislature quickly set partisan politics aside to craft a bill that would provide the funds for a new Capitol. On this date in 1931, the Bismarck Tribune announced that the new building would cost two million dollars. Legislators united behind a bill to provide the funding. The factions were in “substantial agreement” on the idea of constructing a new Capitol that would be a credit to the state while not creating a burden with excessive cost.

There was an interesting undercurrent that came to light shortly after the fire. The ashes had hardly grown cold when it came to light that there was a movement growing in Stutsman County to make Jamestown the state capital. What first seemed idle speculation became real as a petition was circulated asking that the idea be put to a vote. Citizens of Bismarck began their own campaign, writing letters and circulating a competing petition demanding that Bismarck remain the capital. The effort to move the capital quickly lost steam.

Meanwhile, the price tag for the new Capitol ended up $400 below the $2 million limit. The “Skyscraper on the Plains” was completed in 1934.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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