From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.
The Leavenworth Post, Leavenworth, Kansas, Wednesday Afternoon, March 22, 1911. Volume VI. No. 185
With almost indescribable grandeur, and accompanied by incidents extraordinary for a conflagration of the kind, the majestic Leavenworth county court house was destroyed by fire early this morning. The fire, the origin of which is still in doubt, was discovered on the third floor just west of the tower about 1 o'clock. Daylight found the outside walls of the fine building standing unscathed but with nothing inflammable left within.
With the possible exception of the contents of several vaults, the building and its contents were consumed quite as though every individual item had been given undivided attention by the flame, and before daybreak only a shell of the once imposing structure remained, and the inside walls tottered threateningly.
Approximately, the loss on the building and contents exclusive of the records, which in themselves are very valuable, is $200,000, with about $90,000 insurance. However, authorities have ventured that were it eventually determined to duplicate the structure an outlay of $500,000 would be necessary.
At the time of course, it is not known whether the building is to be restored or duplicated, but in either event it is realized that many difficulties necessarily must be overcome. However, there is reason to believe there soon will arise from the ashes an edifice quite as handsome and useful as that which has been pointed out as Leavenworth's finest building since 1874.
During the present week, because of improvements being made in the district court room, there had been no sessions in that division. Prisoners of the county had been busily engaged oiling the hard wood floor, cleaning walls and varnishing woodwork, which had been the means of adding not a little to the appearance of the spacious auditorium of justice.
In all other of the numerous departments of the building, however, everything had progressed quite the same as usual, and when yesterday's work had been completed, the records were consigned to their respective vaults, desks closed and the structure deserted, save for the presence of William Wissler, the night watchman.
During the early evening and until midnight everything seemed quite as usual in the court house. The halls were dark and soundless, except for the occasional tread of the watchman as he went here and there in the performance of his duty. Simultaneously with the sounding of the midnight hour on the massive bell in the clock tower. Wissler repaired to his office on the main floor, where he sat several minutes looking out into the night.
Within a half hour after 12 o'clock the watchman was brought to his feet by an odor of smoke reaching his nostrils. At almost the same instant a dull thud like an explosion rattled the windows, while the huge structure shook on its foundations.
Rushing out into the hall, Wissler hurried in the direction of the stairways in the centre of the building, where he was met by a dense volume of smoke which poured from the second floor. Blindly he groped his way upward, but before reaching the first landing realized that no human could penetrate further in the direction of the seat of the trouble.
Descending, he did not hesitate an instant, but, half strangled, he rushed onto Third street and over to the county jail, where he telephoned an alarm. When he returned to the street again it was to see a dull, red glow behind the windows of the district court room, while little sheets of flame were leaping there and there around the massive clock tower. Then the calm, lighted faces of the big time keeper indicated that only ten minutes had passed since Wissler first detected the odor of smoke, and it ticked contentedly on. In a few minutes the fire departments responded and the booming fire bell awoke scores of citizens who hurried to the fire.
Suddenly, with more of a hiss than a roar, seething flames burst forth as though by a given signal from practically every window of the east wing, driving huge embers high into the air and creating a veritable rain of sparks everywhere in the vicinity.
Upward and downward and in all directions of the compass shot the sheets of fire. the dried-out and oil-soaked white pine woodwork proving excellent fuel and succumbing quickly to the onslaught, until every part of the noble structure was a seething furnace.
By this time hundred of people residing in the vicinity had congregated, some in pajamas, some in nightrobes, all awe-inspired at the magnificence and horror of the spectacle before them. Old men acquainted with the buildings history from its beginning, wept quietly as they watched its destruction; women and children stood awed to silence, while begrimed firemen worked heroically in their vain efforts to check the flames.
Following the first comers came those living at distances, who had been awakened by the glare or roar of the fire, and within a short time after Watchman Wisssler's hurried trip to the telephone, every thoroughfare adjacent to the scene of action had been congested, the upturned faces resembling a little sea of curiosity.
The flames now seemed to turn their attention to the tower and were playing havoc with the supports of the massive structure surmounting the building. It was seen that the tower must fall, but while the spectators were speculating on this new phase, the old clock, which in the meantime had ticked quietly on solemnly and for the last time tolled out the hour of one o'clock.
It was while many firemen were hovering around the building, their faces crimson from the intense heat, and sturdy hands directing huge streams into the furnace, that there came as though in one voice from the multitude
"The tower! The Tower! It's going to fall. . "
And a moment later, when the mechanism of the huge time piece was setting itself for ringing out the half hour of 1, the massive weight and tower and clock collapsed with a defening roar, the mass sending up millions of sparks which for the time filled the air.
The grandeur of it never will be forgotten by those who saw, nor will the terror which imbedded itself upon the hundreds of minds soon become extinct.
In the meantime residents of the vicinity realized that if their own property were to be saved much work was necessary. At first they stood with the others in silent awe, but when countless embers and sparks fell onto the roofs of their dwellings, in many instances starting fires in spite of wetness of the wood from recent rains, they resorted to their own methods of protection.
Garden hoses were played continually on many buildings, while upon the roofs of others wet blankets, rugs and other household fabrics were placed. When the blankets became quite dry from the head, they were wetted again and put into position. In this work the residents were assisted liberally by many who lived without the danger zone, and to their combined efforts alone probably can be attributed the fact that many dwellings, if, indeed, a considerable portion of that part of the city were saved.
Nor were the houses in the immediate vicinity of the court house alone endangered. Sparks alighted as far as half a mile away, in many instances, however, the flames were extinguished, with the result that there were no other disasterous fires.
By the time the clock tower collapsed practically all of the county officers and employes were assisting the firemen in their work. By then, however, it had been realized that to save the building was impossible. Indeed. then it had been practically destroyed, the tower and roof and floors having collapsed. However, it was realized that if the vaults containing records of many years were to be saved, heroic action would be necessary.
The walls were threatening, and the heat issuing from behind them was intense, and a high wind prevailed, but, notwithstanding the firemen headed by Chief Mike Bahler, and followed by the county officers and employes managed to get close enough to direct streams of waters in the directions of the various vaults.
Particular attention was given the vault in the register of deeds department. Therein were stored records of much worth, and their loss would be the means of undoing the work of years. the streams were effective, all fire around the vaults soon being extinguished, after which they were played upon the white heated bricks until they were quite cool.
The other vaults received similar attention, and it is probable that their contents have been saved. The vaults continued concrete floors, arched ceilings and double doors, and there is reason for believing they resisted the attack of the flames.
It is known that the massive weight in the clock tower, said to weight about ten tons, fell on the vault in the district clerk's office, but the injury was only slight, according to District Clerk C. C. Smith, who at the risk of his life inspected the top of the receptacke shortly after the fire had been subdued.
Al Erman, clerk of the city court, viewed the vault of his office from a ladder placed conveniently against the side of the building this morning, and expressed confidence that its contents were intact.
Record Clerk Jeffries ventured the opinion that the vault in his department had answered its purpose, and that the records were preserved. The probate court records were undamaged.
At 2:30 o'clock, just two hours after the fire started, nothing remained but the bare walls, and the inside ones threatened to collapse every minute. The firemen were cautious, and it was not until after daylight when they ventured nearer in their efforts to cool the vaults.
About 3 o'clock the crowd of curious people began to wend their way homeward, leaving the firemen at their task. This morning, however, they returned and throughout the day many stood about looking with wonder at the grim walls.
Thus it was that with the coming of dawn March 22, 1922, Leavenworth County, Kansas, was without a court house, although there is every reason to believe that before a corresponding date one year hence another and probably even more majestic structure will have arisen from its ashes.
"I claim the honor of being one of the last to hear the old court house clock strike one," said Thomas Judge who lives near the courthouse. "While the firemen were coupling on their hose and getting ready to throw water the old clock boomed once and like the grandfathers clock, when the clock struck one, the weight ran down, dickery, dickery dock."
McCowan Hunt county assessor, has established his office at 500 Shawnee street where he will be pleased to receive tax returns. He is having a new set of tax rolls printed, as all the books which were in preparation for this year were destroyed.
The Manufacturers National Bank this morning tendered the county officials the use of its safety deposit boxes for the storing of valuable papers, without charge, and also offered the free use of a storeroom owned by it on Delaware street near Third. Much of the contents of the big vaults if found intact will no doubt be taken to these places.
In all probability the county offices will be established in the Fitzwilliam building at the corner of Fourth and Delaware, formerly occupied by the Elks Club. It is thought that it will be at least a year before the county officials are in a new home.
Supt. Kelsey has established his office at his law office for the present.
Probate Judge Johnson expects by tomorrow to be able to take care of any couples who wish to be married.
A rope has been stretched about the court house ruins and watchmen under charge of the sheriff patrol the grounds night and day. It is probable that the register of deeds vault will not be opened until tomorrow, as it is still quite hot. The contents are believed to be safe.
The door of the vault in the engineer's office is open, and it is feared the contents are lost.
That huge pile of what looks like rusty scrap tin in front of the court house is copper sheeting which is worth about ten cents a pound. It will be sold to some junk dealer.
The court house burned so splendidly when it got started that it is impossible to write about "blackened walls." The walls were burned off so clean that they are white. Every bit of plaster is gone from them.
Mike Bahler and his fire laddies are to be congratulated on the brave fight they put up to save the county records, and if the records prove to be safe, it will be found that it was the streams of water poured onto the vaults all night that saved them.
Harold Short, Humphrey Reilly, C. C. Smith, Jesse Hall, Tom Brown, Sheriff Larkin and many others of the court house officials were on the grounds helping the fie fighters and directing them to the places where it was most essential to hold the fire in check. Mr. Reilly upon arriving at the scene found everyone urging the firemen to concentrate their efforts on the treasurers vault. "Save the register of deed vault" suggested Reilly, "it contains something much more valuable than anything in the treasurer's vault. We keep the county money in the banks. It is the records you must save<" and it is believed the records of that office are saved.
If it develops that the records of the register of deeds are not saved, the abstract books owned by Harold Short will be worth a small fortune, as they are about the only other records in existence. It is said there is not a set of abstract books in the city that is up-to-date however, all being two or three years behind on some of the transfers.
Court Stenographer Thorp stated today that among the valuables lost was a set of stenographic note books in which were all the records of testimony in the Biddle, Wellman and Rosenfield cases. Two of these, the Wellman and Biddle cases are to go up to the supreme court and it is questionable if the cases can be heard without a new trial in each as the testimony of witness is all destroyed and it was the most important part.
Mr. McGonigle, the contractor, stated this morning that the walls as left standing are in excellent shape and that the county could safely go ahead and rebuild by repairing places where the heat and water cracked the stone and brick.
The court house was built in 1874 and the contractors were Anderson and Liddel. The brick work was sublet to Fenn and Hockham and it is said to be one of the finest pieces of work of the kind in the west. The architect firm which designed the building was Carr and Schultz. E. T. Carr, head of the firm, was well known to the old timers.
The law library which was lost was owned by the Leavenworth Law Library Association which was founded in the early days by S. B. Wheat, T. Fenlon, Judge Hurd, Judge Fitzwilliam and others and it is said that the books were worth probably $15,000.
An interesting feature of the morning's events was the formal holding of court on the south steps of the court house at ten o'clock. Judge Wendorff presided and court was called to order by Bailiff Doidge. Lee Bond, Ben Endres, John O'Keefe and several other members of the bar were present. Judge Wendorff simply formally adjourned court until Monday morning.
One of the most valuable relics in the court house which was destroyed was a splendid portrait of the late Mr. Stillings, father of Senator Stillings. It was painted by a New York artist several years ago and cost Senator Stillings $400. This picture hung in the district court room and was noted as a masterpiece. Senator Stillings feels very badly over the loss, as it was the only really good portrait of his father in existence.
The ornamental coping of the court house was constructed of the best twenty ounce copper and under the terrific heat this melted and fell in molten drops onto the window sills from which it splashed in beautiful scintillating drops.
For the first time in many years the old hose reel from No. 1 station was brought into use last night. It was drawn to the fire by the patrol team and connected to a plug at Fifth and Walnut streets. The hose was leaky at the joints and some patent couplers had to be used.
Cartridges exploding in the sheriff's office caused some excitement during the fire. A box of incandescent globes in Janitor Clark's office also added to the excitement when they commenced popping.
Rumors that the booze stored in the basement of the court house would be in danger of exploding were heard on the square during the conflagration and at every unusual noise someone would yell, "There goes the booze, look out." A former saloon keeper set fears at rest by predicting that the booze wouldn't even burn, much less explode and his prediction came true for the liquor wasn't touched by the fire.
The splendid law library in the court house is estimated to have been worth about $5,000. It was destroyed.
"I haven't smelled that odor for a good many years," said an old timer as he walked home after the fire sniffing the fine odor of burning white pine. There is not much of the clear white pine of the old days used in buildings nowadays.
A typewriter agent was on the ground last night trying to find the county officials, so as to sell them new typewriters. An undertaker's wagon also stood on the corner, but it was only curiosity that brought the undertakers assistants there.
It is generally conceded that had it not been for the showers early in the evening, which dampened the roofs and dead grass, many fires would have started from the flying embers. Embers were picked up six blocks south of the courthouse.
People living south of the court house and near it, were out all night with garden hose and buckets of water drenching the huge blazing embers that fell in a shower on the roofs.
"Suppose a big fire should start up in North Leavenworth," suggested some pessimist and his suggestion caused no little uneasiness and emphasized the necessity of more fire protection in Leavenworth. In fact Leavenworth is away behind other towns of its size in the matter of fire fighting equipment.
"I will catch thunder when I get home," exclaimed one citizen as he stood gloomily watching the blaze. "My wife has been hounding me for six years to get a copy of our marriage certificate. The preacher who married us took the certificate with him when he left the state, and we don't know where he is now. If the probate court records are destroyed we are liable to have trouble someday proving we are married.
this ad was on the front page at the top of column 4, March 22, 1911
Rooms with fire proof vault The County Commissioners want rooms with fire proof vault for county officers who have valuable records.
Persons having such rooms notify Commissioner Short or County Attorney Bond at once..