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.
A fire starting shortly after 12 o'clock this morning left the court house of Leavenworth County a pile of smoking ruins within two hours. Flames were still leaping up inside the bare walls later than that, of course, but everything had been destroyed by that time with the possible exception of the county records and even they may have been burned.
If the records are destroyed the loss to this county will reach into seven figures. The building alone cost $120,415 and its furnishings were worth probably $55,000. The records were in supposedly fire proof vaults, but county officials at the fire this morning were skeptical as to whether they would preserve the books from the fire.
About 12:35 o'clock, as nearly as he can remember, William Wissler of Tenth and Michigan avenues, night watchman at the court house, heard an explosion on the second floor. He was on the first floor at that time and ran outside to see what had happened. He saw nothing and returned.
A few minutes later a volume of black smoke rolled down the stairways and filled the lower floor. Wissler was nearly strangled before he could escape into the fresh air. Then he ran to a house nearby--he could not remember which one it was--and turned in the alarm. It was 12:50 o'clock when the fire bell rang.
Wissler says the fire started on the second floor. A force of prisoners from the county jail had been varnishing the Walnut fixtures in the court rooms and balustrades in the halls of the court house. They were working in the district court room, on the second floor, until 8 o'clock last night and, it is supposed, that they left their paints and oils there. Wissler says that the explosion seemed to have occurred in that room.
The woodwork of the second story, soaked in oil and varnish, was highly inflammable and in a few minutes the entire upper floor was a seething mass of flames. When the firemen arrived they entered the building with four leads of hose, but the flames had found their way to the lower floor and drove them back. The heat was so intense that now one could get inside the building.
So rapid was the work of the flames that at 1:20 the large clock tower fell with a crash that could be heard throughout half the city, and a few minutes later the roof caved in. Then the walls began to totter and firemen were forced to stand at a safe distance. They were pouring water through the windows from six nozzles then, but the water had little preceptible[sic] effect on the flames.
By 2 o'clock there was practically nothing left of the stately red brick pile but four jagged and charred walls inside of which there roared a furnace that lighted half of the city. The central part of the town was lighted with a red blare as if by the setting sun but it was as light as day.
The telephone systems spread the news of the fire within a few minutes. Operators of both companies said that they had about five calls a minute for an hour after the fire was discovered. A crowd gathered and it soon grew to 2,000 or more--some half clad, some dressed in their night clothes with a cloak or coat thrown over them. One fireman was dressed only in pair of "transparent" overalls and part of them had been burned off.
Residents of that neighborhood feared for their homes. Sparks were falling on their roofs and they played on the shingles with garden hose and laid wet blankets on them. No house took fire, however.
At 2 o'clock this morning Mike Bahler, fire chief, said that he thought he would be able to save the records in the offices downstairs on the north side and possibly those of the clerk of the district court. The records of the district court were on the second floor but they were kept in a steel vault, one of the most modern in the whole building. There is little hope for any records the sheriff may have had, for there were no vaults in his office. The records of the probate court and register of deeds and county clerk were kept in vaults also, but whether they resisted the terrific heat is uncertain.
At times the walls would shake and chunks would fall down, but the greater part of the walls still stood at 3 o'clock this morning. The interior was simply gutted and the wall surround nothing but smokey space. When the walls trembled the crowd would fall back out of harm's way to surge up toward the building again when it seemed. A squad of policemen did effective work in keeping the mass back, so that the firemen were not interfered with.
As the fire wagons rattled down Fourth street, across the railroad tracks and up the hill a murky red light showed through the windows of the second floor. Before the ladder truck was hitched two lines of hose were pulled through the south entrance and with the firemen still pushing through the doors the first water shot through the railing of the stairway and sizzled as it reached the flames.
Firemen struggled through the smoke and for a minute fought against the heat to reach the office of the clerk of the district court. For a minute they worked in a red glow, but as the second stream fell on the flames at the head of the stairs flared and went out.
In the smoke packed halls, the darkness was intense. Lanterns then lit up the spots of the blackness and the firemen wet further into the building. The fire was driven back to the office where it started and it seemed that the flames were beaten.
It was only for a few minutes. People coming up to the edge of the crowd, saw a faint glow showing the windows near the roof top. And sparks began to shoot up into sight.
Suddenly the whole roof seemed to heave and bulge through the windows and leaped high above the dome. A whisper rose from the crowd and it fell back from the rain of burning sparks. The firemen backed slowly away from the fierce heat and the flames had won.
While streams from four nozzles played on the south walls and roof, the flames changed color. Smoky red tongues of fire ran together into solid yellow. The heat grew fiercer and the crowds sank away before it. Fire Chief Mike Bahler announced that there was no hope of saving the building and in less than an hour after the alarm sounded, the court house was gone.
The efforts of the firemen then were directed to saving the offices in the north wings. Three streams played constantly through the windows and fought back the fire from the vaults. County officials familiar with the building arrived and assisted in directing the streams where they would be of most service. All hope of saving the register of deeds office was given up and everything possible was done to protect the vaults.
In the meantime the roof began to fall. Heavy timbers left without support crashed through the ceiling below. A weight from the third floor fell. Bricks broke loose from the tottering walls and dropped. Lead and tin melted and ran along the cornices and dripped off. Pieces of burning boards dropped onto the hose and a moment wa lost in protecting it. When the third and second floors fell, a volume of soot was forced through the walls and high into the air.
The crowds had grown from hundreds to thousands. As the first interest died away, men joked and settled down to watch the final gutting of the building. New arrivals kept up the interest for awhile but the intense eagerness of the first combat was gone. It was only a wonder as to how long the building would keep burning. The few who still were waiting on the roofs of the houses on the south clambered down. Women started home and a few men followed.
Details of the building and the history of the house were heard. The original cost was named at figures from $75,000 to $125,000. With the fixtures it was estimated at nearly $300,000. The insurance was not more than $90,000.
Several men were arrested for different reasons. More were accused of drunkenness and disturbing the firemen or the crowd than anythig[sic] else. Two young men amused themselves by throwing rocks at one party of firemen. Police kept on the water as the interest in the fire died away. No serious disturbance was reported, however.
When the flames burned through to the basement and near the store room of confiscated liquor, there was a scattering of the crowd. Rumors told that it was expected to explode, but only a sudden fierce heat came when it finally caught fire.
A line of hose bursting at 2:30 o'clock caused considerable excitement for awhile. It added to the drenching of many of the crowd received by standing too close to the firemen when they moved from one point of vantage to another.
Men and boys threw stones through windows. They yelled when the flames shot out. Others were always on hand to assist the firemen when long lines of hose had to be moved. A number of the member of the troups[sic] playing at the Orpheum were prominent in helping this way. They were among the earlier arrivals.
When the streams from two nozzles played on the office of the clerk of the district court continuously for several minutes, the flag which hung on the wall next the vault was seen still flying in the heat. It was there until the last part of the wall carrying the flag with it.
The steps of homes, the jail, and churches were lined with sightseers. They were waiting and talking of the fire. Many had kodaks and took pictures while the flames were brightest. Others hunted the sides of houses where the wind could not strike them.
Patrolmen did efficient service at times when it seemed that there was danger from the walls about to fall. No fire line was run around the building, but the crowds were kept from dangerous places.
That the crowd was so large was said to be due to the efforts of men at work nights in rousing their friends to see the blaze. Also telephone girls called many who came out. No one objected at being awakened. Many who came down town early this morning were disappointed at not learning of the fire sooner.
The work of the firemen was all that could be asked. Returning but an hour before from another alarm, they were just preparing for the night when called out. They came in shirts and many were insufficiently clothed. One nozzleman, "Pete" covered a burnt pair of overalls only with a long thin raincoat, but he staid at the hottest of the fire, directing the stream. From Mike Bahler to the drivers, every man did all possible.
In February, 1874, the Leavenworth County Court House which was destroyed by fire this morning, was completed. It was first and only court house ??????????????????????
felt by the older citizens of the city, many of whom took part in its building and dedication.
For years Leavenworth County was without and administrative building and the courts and county offices were located for many years in the city hall, corner Fifth and Shawnee streets, where the fire department headquarters are now located.
As far back as 1858, the building of a court house was agitated and Jeremiah Clark donated the land consisting of the east half of block 13, being 300 feet on Third street and 180 feet on Walnut street for the purpose of encouraging the county to build a "seat of justice." The other half of the block was purchased for $13,000.
John P. Haskell was appointed architect of the county buildings and $35,000 in bonds were voted. But in spite of the impetus given it was some time before the structure was started.
When completed the court house was considered among the finest buildings of its kind in the West and was easily the most imposing in the state of Kansas. It was built of red brick, with stone trimmings and a fine mansard roof. With its lofty tower and clock the building represented a total cost of over $175,000, of which the building proper cost $120,415.75.
Within the 38 years of its existence, the Leavenworth County Court House witnessed many stirring scenes. Important trials, with some of the state's greatest lawyers arrayed on the opposing sides and presided over by jurists who later sat on state and United States senators and congressmen passed within its doors. Weighty opinions of historic note were handed down by the eminent jurists who presided at the many important trials. It was a building with a history.
Many of Leavenworth's residents do not know that it was only after one of the most bitter political fights in the history of Kansas that Leavenworth secured the title of "county seat." It was in 1857 that it was decided to hold an election to decide the location and October 8th was fixed as the day. Eight miles above Fort Leavenworth was Kickapoo City, a thriving village with saloons, grocery stores and a newspaper, The Kansas Pioneer. Kickapoo City was backed by General Atchison and the pro-slavery party. Six miles below was Delaware City, which, according to the History of Kansas "was a plucky little town, possessing like Kickapoo City, indefinite powers of expansion."
Election day witnessed a hot fight between the three leading towns. Weston and other pro-slavery towns in Missouri, sent over several boat loads of voters to swell the majority in favor of Kickapoo City. The first election was greatly in favor of that place. After a legal contest, Judge Lecompte decided for Delaware and the county seat was moved there February 20, 1857. But in October, 1857, the final election to decide the county seat question was held. In this Kickapoo again polled the largest number of votes, Leavenworth contested the election of the ground that the election was not confined to the county. It was finally decided that Leavenworth had received a majority of the legal votes cast, and was entitled to the county seat. Since that time the decision was never versed.
It was in the following May that the county commissioners accepted the land donated by Jeremiah Clark and it was fifteen years later before the first and only court house of Leavenworth County was occupied. Such is the brief history of the fire-gutted structure whose walls today stand blackened as if in mourning for its contents.
At 8:45 o'clock this morning the records in the vaults on the north side of the building were still safe and a steady stream was kept playing on the safe doors keeping them cool. It could not be determined whether the vaults on the south side were destroyed. The north wind blew the flames and sparks out to the south and the firemen fought with great difficulty. According to J. A. Hall, county clerk, there is a probability that a great number of the vouchers and warrants are destroyed that never have been recorded. They will be a total loss..