The Capitol Disaster of 1870

Reconstruction in Richmond

The Capitol Disaster

On April 27, 1870, citizens of Richmond and visitors from across the state were anxiously awaiting the verdict in the Chahoon-Ellyson case at the Capitol building. The Capitol was designed by Thomas Jefferson and modeled after the Maison Quarre in Nismes, France, which was built in the classically antique style of a Roman temple. The cornerstone of the Capitol building was laid on August eighteenth, 1785.[1] The lower level of the courtroom could accommodate approximately two hundred people, while the gallery could hold one hundred.[2] On that Wednesday, the courtroom was filled beyond capacity with members of the press, lawyers, and others eager to hear the outcome of the case.[3] The verdict was to be delivered at eleven o’clock, at which time a judge and a clerk of the court entered the courtroom while the other judges remained behind in the conference room. With a noise like a “smothered cannon,” the large girder that held the gallery snapped, loosening the supports, and causing it come away from the wall and fall onto the courtroom floor.[4] The courtroom floor, unaccustomed to such a heavy weight, collapsed and fell into the Hall of Delegates below, which was devoid of people. Some died as a result of being crushed to death; others suffocated from the dust arising from the crumbled plaster.[5]

Washington Monument

The Washington Monument in Capitol Square,

where hats of the dead were placed at the foot

Those in the Capitol Square saw clouds of dust pouring from the Capitol’s windows and thought that the building’s boiler had exploded, and a rumor quickly spread that the Capitol was on fire.[6] Soon after, bells throughout the city were ringing to spread word of the accident, and the Fire Department was soon on the scene. Firefighters placed ladders against the windowsills on the outside of the building, and used them to rescue victims. Policemen were blocking the entrance to the building to ensure that only those involved with rescue efforts were allowed inside. Governor Walker, whose office was next to the courtroom, did not sustain any injuries from the collapse, and assisted in helping the wounded and carrying the dead out of the building. The dead and wounded were either put in the Senate Chamber or in the Capitol Square, where city physicians could attend to them. The dead were laid aside and covered with blankets, and later were returned to their families. Those brought out of the building were covered in dust, and many were so badly bruised that family members were unable to identify them. The wounded were transported back to their homes by ambulances, vehicles, or hacks.[7] All business within the city of Richmond ceased, and many placed crepe paper on their doors in sympathy and mourning.[8] Approximately sixty men were killed, and hundreds injured.[9]


Notes

1. Extract of letter from Thomas Jefferson to the directors of the construction of the Capitol, Capitol Square Data for Mr. W.W. Savedge, box 1, folder 4, Capitol Square Data, Records, 1776-1971 (bulk 1785-1850), Library of Virginia; date of cornerstone found in Old Dominion Magazine, vol. V, 1871, p 487, Capitol Square Data for Mr. W.W. Savedge, box 1, folder 4, Capitol Square Data.
2. George Chahoon, Mayor 1870, page 2, George Chahoon Papers, LVA.
3. “The Frightful Calamity at Richmond, Va,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 14, 1870.
4. Description of noise from “The Frightful Calamity at Richmond, Va,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 14, 1870; remainder of information from “The Richmond Calamity,” Harper’s Weekly, May 14, 1870.
5. “The Richmond Calamity,” Harper’s Weekly, May 14, 1870.
6. “The Scene Outside,” Petersburg Index, April 29, 1870.
7. “The Frightful Calamity at Richmond, Va,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 14, 1870.
8. George Chahoon, Mayor 1870, page 3, George Chahoon Papers, LVA.
9. The number of dead and wounded varies according to source. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper reported on May 14, 1870, in “The Frightful Calamity at Richmond, Va,” that over 60 people were killed and 125 wounded. A Full Account of the Great Calamity (Richmond: Ellyson & Taylor, 1870) reported that 58 people died. Edwin J. Slipek wrote in his November 2, 2005 Style Weekly article “The Mayor Time Forgot” that 62 people died and 310 were injured.
Image of Washington Monument from Library of Congress. Image digitally enhanced by the author.