The Arsenal blaze

Illinois State Arsenal under construction, 1902.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. 
For as long as there have been armed forces there have been arsenals, facilities to store and secure weapons and ammunition. For obvious reasons these facilities are generally well-built and well-protected. A lucky hit on one of them by an enemy in battle could wreck an entire fort, or sink a powerful warship. Over the centuries, warring armies have expended enormous effort and tons of artillery or aerial bombs to destroy these high-value targets.

One Sunday night in February 1934 in Springfield all it took was a ten-year old with some matches and a paper bag.

Just across Monroe Street from the State Capitol, the Illinois State Arsenal held the weapons and equipment for the Illinois National Guard, which was itself headquartered across the street in the Capitol building. The $150,000 masonry building replaced a Civil War-era arsenal on North 5th Street and was designed by the architectural firm of Bullard & Bullard. When finally completed by the Culver Stone and Marble Company, the arsenal resembled a medieval castle in appearance. It was dedicated in 1903 in a lavish ceremony which featured as its keynote speaker the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.

“It is an occasion when every lover and worker for the city, no matter whether a merchant or clerk, may enter on the same plane and do his part to make the celebration a success,” reported the Springfield News on the occasion.

The three-story building served a number of functions. It housed a firing range for training National Guardsmen and provided quarters for officers staying in the capital city. Its basement held as much as one million rounds of ammunition and large amounts of explosives.

Astonishingly, sitting atop this powder keg was the capital city’s premier banquet venue, a large auditorium which had hosted speeches by five more Presidents and the centennial celebration for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1909, which entertained nearly 2000 guests. The arsenal auditorium had hosted such performers as Bing Crosby, John Philip Sousa and the Chicago Grand Opera. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had spoken there just months earlier.

But lest the entertainment aspect of the building suggest otherwise, it was at heart a functional military facility, and it served this function for its three decades of existence. The building also held thousands of pages of irreplaceable paper war records of Illinois soldiers from previous wars. This would prove to be a fateful decision in the events which occurred on that cold February night.

On February 19, 1934, a fourth-grade student in Springfield whom a later investigation would report “liked to watch things burn,” sneaked into the building and lit a fire in a trash can in one of the restrooms. He reported the fire to the janitor; possibly as a distraction; then moved out into the auditorium where he placed a fuse into a paper bag, lit it on fire and tossed it onto the stage, igniting the curtains.

The fire quickly spread through the building. As the first firefighters arrived on the scene, they could hear the popping sounds of rifle ammunition going off. Before long, the capital city’s entire 88-man fire department had responded to the blaze, which by this time had spread through the entire building. The rooms holding the rifle rounds were consumed, but the rounds which continued to go off throughout the night were confined by the building’s thick stone walls.

What was not nearly as secure were the stores of dynamite in the basement. All through the night, firefighters kept a steady stream of water on the 150 pounds of dynamite as they fought the fire elsewhere. The consequences of the fire reaching those explosives would have been devastating. Fortunately their efforts paid off and the fire was beaten back before it reached the explosives.

But in preventing the catastrophic blast which would have resulted from the flames reaching the explosives, firefighters had been forced to sacrifice much of the rest of the building, including the state’s military records. The next morning, when the fire was extinguished without any deaths or serious injuries, this loss of the records from so much of Illinois’ history would emerge as one of the greatest losses of the fire. But it also led to the greatest improvement which came out of the disaster.

Arsenal fire. Photo from Sangamon County Historical Society. 
In addition to the building and the ammunition, the National Guard lost 3000 rifles and supplies totaling just under one million dollars. The State Fire Marshal began an investigation immediately, and the testimony of the building’s janitor was key in leading to the young boy who had brought down the great building.

Meanwhile, the scope of the loss of paper files to the state was becoming staggeringly clear, and voices, led by the American Legion, began calling for better protection for priceless chronicles of Illinois’ history, military and otherwise. During this decade, fire ravaged the State Capitol itself, as well as government buildings in other states. On top of all this was the concern by local officials and citizens about the enormous risk of storing large quantities of ammunition and explosives in the middle of a city. Springfield had been lucky this time, but another such fire could set off a deadly disaster.

The National Guard made the decision to re-locate its supplies to Camp Lincoln, far to the north, while keeping an office space in downtown. A successor building was constructed on the site of the destroyed arsenal. The art-deco style Illinois State Armory was built in 1936 and replaced its successor as the city’s prime event venue, beginning with the inauguration of Governor Dwight Green in 1941.

The new building picked up where the old one left off, hosting Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon as well as Dr. Martin Luther King and West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt. It also played host to athletic events like boxing matches and the Springfield city basketball tournament. Eventually the National Guard moved all of its operations to Camp Lincoln and the building was taken over by the Illinois State Police, before they moved on to their current headquarters in 2008.

The issue of safeguarding important state records was highlighted by the fire, and it too was addressed in the following years with the construction of the Illinois State Archives building on the opposite end of the Capitol complex. It would incorporate state-of-the-art practices to protect documents and other important historic artifacts so that they are available for future generations to review and research.

Those papers are protected from sunlight, mold, temperature, insects and many other threats. But most of all, they are protected from fire.