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Austin Fires

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
They happened too far apart both physically and in time for anyone to declare a jinx, but Austin has a bad record when it comes to government buildings destroyed or heavily damaged by fire.

The latest loss occurred during the pre-dawn hours of Sunday June 8, when the 152-year-old Governor’s Mansion sustained heavy damage in a four-alarm blaze. A passerby who saw flames shooting from the front of the Greek Revival-style structure just across from the Capitol reported the fire at 1:43 a.m.

Designed by noted architect Abner Cook, the two-story, ante-bellum house with its distinctive 29-foot columns has been the residence of 40 of Texas’ 47 chief executives. It is the fourth-oldest governor’s mansion in the nation, and the oldest west of the Mississippi.

Fortunately for posterity, all the mansion’s historic furnishings, including Stephen F. Austin’s writing desk and Sam Houston’s bed, had been removed for a $10 million renovation started last fall.

The State Fire Marshal’s office and federal agents are looking for a suspected arsonist, someone seen on the mansion grounds in surveillance video. State officials and history-minded citizens also are worried about how an intruder could have entered a building under 24-hour protection by the Department of Public Safety.

Austin’s string of destructive public property fires dates to the fading days of the Republic of Texas, during the administration of President Anson Jones.

About 2 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1845, someone noticed flames licking from the Office of the Treasurer. The Capital City had no organized fire department, and the structure and contents were a total loss.

Despite its lofty title, the treasury was an unimposing wooden structure located off lower Congress Avenue near the Colorado River. And despite rumors to the contrary, no money or valuable financial documents were destroyed. Still, papers that would be considered historically significant today went up in smoke.

The fire was believed to have been the work of an arsonist but sketchy newspaper accounts don’t report that authorities ever identified the culprit.

The next fire to break out in a government building in Austin – the headquarters of the Adjutant General – also was intentionally set.

While only a handful of historians have ever heard of it, the 1855 blaze that destroyed the Adjutant General’s Department building in the 700 block of Congress Avenue had a devastating impact.

As former Texas Ranger and historian John Salmon “Rip” Ford later wrote: “The reports of many military officers were lost, without the possibility of reproduction. For that reason it is almost impossible in many instances to give exact dates of military happenings.”

The old Indian fighter understated the situation. What Texas lost was much of its early history.

By legislative act in 1846, according to the Texas State Library and Archives, “The duties which fell to the Adjutant General included the issuance of all military orders; the maintenance of records of appointments, promotions, resignations, deaths, commissions, etc.; the receipt of monthly and annual returns, and muster rolls from the various military units; the keeping of the records of general courts martial; recruitment and enrollment of Rangers and militiamen.”

Most of those documents, dating back to the days of the Texas Revolution, were reduced to ashes.

“Early on Thursday morning last,” the weekly Austin Gazette reported on Oct. 13, 1855, “the office of the adjutant general was discovered to be on fire, and in a short time the whole building was enveloped in flames. Gen. [James S.] Gillett was barely able to save a few clothes. All the records of the office…are destroyed.”

The newspaper went on the report that the fire had been the work of an “incendiary,” another word for arsonist.

“The window of the office was found open,” the newspaper continued, “and the fire appeared to have been built on the floor.”

The only good news the Gazette could report, and it is slim consolation for historians today, is that the fire did not spread to the adjacent building – the office of the Gazette.

While arrests were made in connection with the setting of the fire, the state did not succeed in getting any convictions against the suspects.

Not only did the fire destroy the department’s records from the 1830s to early 1850s, with no papers and no building, the state simply abolished the office for a time. When the Legislature took no action to rebuild the headquarters or fund the agency, Gen. Gillett got a letter from Gov. E.M. Pease on Feb. 4, 1856 that “there is…no longer any occasion for the services of an Adjutant General.”

The Legislature did not bother to reinstitute the office until 1860. By that time, the state had a new office building for the General Land Office, a relatively fireproof structure that still stands and for years held most of the state’s surviving historical documents.

The next major loss of public property in Austin happened on Nov. 9, 1881 when fire left the limestone capitol at the head of Congress Avenue a charred hulk. While state workers and volunteers managed to save some of the documents in the building, much Texas history again went up in smoke.

The only positive side of the blaze was that it destroyed an ugly and cheaply built statehouse one newspaper writer called “the old sarcophagus” and cleared the way – literally – for the present granite capitol.

Finally, in an incident with some similarities to the Governor’s Mansion blaze, a fire that started inside a television set in the lieutenant governor’s apartment in the Capitol on Feb. 6, 1983 (also on an early Sunday morning) raged out of control for a time. If the Austin Fire Department had not finally knocked it down, the fire would have gutted the then 101-year-old building.

Like the Capitol fire in 1881, the 1983 fire resulted in something good: It led to a major renovation of the building, with particular emphasis to fire control.

Ironically, the now-interrupted remodeling project at the Governor’s Mansion included installation of a sprinkler system.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
June 12, 2008 column

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Mike Cox's "The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900," the first of a two-volume, 250,000-word definitive history of the Rangers, was released by Forge Books in New York on March 18, 2008

Kirkus Review, the American Library Association's Book List and the San Antonio Express-News have all written rave reviews about this book, the first mainstream, popular history of the Rangers since 1935.
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