1870, April 27: Some background on the Capitol Disaster. A plaque commemorating the Capitol Disaster of 1870 is on the south wall of the Capitol’s House of Delegates chamber, and reads:
CAPITOL DISASTER THIS TABLET WAS ERECTED UNDER AN ACT OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF VIRGINIA, APPROVED MARCH 16, 1918 – TO MARK THE SCENE OF THE CAPITOL DISASTER WHICH OCCURRED ON APRIL 27, 1870, WHEN THE FLOOR OF THE COURT ROOM OF THE SUPREME COURT OF APPEALS WHICH WAS THEN ABOVE THIS HALL FELL, RESULTING IN THE DEATH OF SIXTY-TWO AND THE INJURING OF TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY-ONE OTHER PERSONS.
THE FALLING OF THE COURT ROOM WAS OCCASIONED BY THE ATTENDANCE OF AN UNUSUAL NUMBER OF PERSONS ASSEMBLED TO HEAR THE DECISION OF THE COURT IN THE CASE OF ELLYSON VS. CAHOON, KNOWN AS THE RICHMOND MAYORALTY CASE. REPORTED IN XIX GRATTAN, PAGE 673.
According to today’s state government official website and “virtual tour” of the Capitol, with accompanying history notes:
The Richmond Mayoralty case was an ongoing case to determine the mayor of Richmond. George Cahoon was appointed mayor by the military governor, while Henry K. Ellyson was elected by the people. On Wednesday, April 27, a large crowd was in attendance to hear the verdict of the Supreme Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of Ellyson.
According to a report published in Harper’s Weekly [May 14, 1870], a few years prior to the disaster, it had been noted that additional offices were needed in the Capitol. Thus, a second story was added over the Old Hall of the House of Delegates, as the ceilings are extremely high. Following this addition, pillars in the Old Hall of the House of Delegates were removed to improve its appearance, which weakened the support of the floor.
While the reported removal of the support beams is not certain, as early as 1834, the Superintendent of Public Buildings had reported that the floor sagged due to the extreme length of the floor joists. Unfortunately, no action was taken to correct the problem. On the day of the disaster, around eleven o’clock, the clerk of the court had just entered and placed his books on the table. One judge was in his seat and counsel, reporters, and spectators filled the space. Without warning, beams snapped and the floor of the gallery fell. The scene was terrible. Some survivors hung from window sills and a mantelpiece until they were rescued. The room was filled with dust and plaster. Firemen raised ladders to the windows of the Old Hall of the House of Delegates. The bodies of the dead and wounded were passed through the windows and laid under trees in Capitol Square. News of the disaster was reported around the world.
After the Capitol disaster, many felt the Capitol building should be replaced. “Were it not for Ballard T. Edwards, there might have not been a Jefferson-designed statehouse to renovate.” (Jeff E. Shapiro “A New Old Capitol: Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Capitol is looking better than ever.” State Legislatures July/August 2007: 69.) Edwards, a contractor and an African-American Republican member of the House of Delegates in 1870, convinced lawmakers that restoring the Capitol would cost far less than replacing it. Edwards also argued that the Capitol needed to be preserved because it was a symbol of Virginia’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Edwards argued that restoring the Capitol would restore the ties of the state government, still struggling with postwar trauma, with Thomas Jefferson.