The Capitol Columns

Jersey Shore Cemetery (left) and Linwood Cemetery (right)

“Do we have time for two more stops?” I asked.

Haylee glanced at her phone. “We should be good. Where are we headed?”

“First to McElhattan and then back to Jersey Shore,” I answered.

We arrived at Linwood Cemetery in McElhattan and got out of the vehicle. The sound of lawnmowers running filled the air, but the caretakers had already finished the part of the cemetery we were visiting. Haylee shaded her eyes as she looked at the gigantic monument that stood guard over the cemetery. The American flag that hung from the top of the memorial moved lazily in the light breeze.

“Is that one of the capitol columns?” She asked.

“It is.”

The memorial is one of the large columns salvaged from the front portico of the original state capitol building. Of the six columns that graced the front of the building, only three are known to exist and on this journey, Haylee and I were planning on visiting two of them – the one we were standing at in Linwood Cemetery and the other a short drive away in the Jersey Shore Cemetery. Note: The third one is on the Lochabar Estate and there are two smaller columns – possibly from a side portico – border the Market Street Bridge in Harrisburg.

The morning of February 2, 1897 started like any other morning at the capitol complex in Harrisburg. The House was still in session and the Senate was preparing to convene when smoke was noticed.

All morning, people in the Pennsylvania capitol building reported smelling smoke, but searches found no fire, so the smell was ignored. It was not until smoke began filling the building that there was a serious problem. Word of the fire passed among the representatives and they quickly gathered what they could as the fire spread rapidly through the historic structure. In a whirlwind of confusion people fled the building.

The origin of conflagration has never been determined, though it is believed it was caused by an open fire in the lieutenant governor’s office. The hearth had been deemed unsafe and ordered to be rebuilt. However, the fireplace was never replaced. It was believed the heat of the fire set the dust in joists to smoldering.

The disastrous fire did $1.5 million dollars in damage to the legislative meeting place that had existed since 1822. The February 3, 1897 edition of The Reading Eagle lists some of the losses that occurred in the fire. Attempts were made to save two clocks imported from France. The clocks, valued at $500 each, were lost despite an attempt to rescue them. The entire libraries of the Senate and House, valued at around $25,000 were completely destroyed. A number of paintings were destroyed, including five portraits of former Lieutenant Governors and a series of etchings featuring famous Pennsylvanians. The Department of Education and the Game and Forestry Commissions lost all of their documents and papers. All of the original bills presented in the House were lost, though duplicate copies were saved. Many rare and original papers that could never be replaced were destroyed. The loss was devastating.

The building bordering the State Capitol Building to the right housed all of the surveys of the state. With the threat of the fire spreading, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Affairs Brown had his people box up the documents and prepared to have them removed at a moment’s notice.  Only a shift in wind prevented the fire from spreading to neighboring buildings.

The displaced assembly was offered temporary quarters in Philadelphia, but the offer was declined. The fear was if the assembly moved to Philadelphia, there would be a push to have the state capitol moved there too. For the next two years, the state assembly met in the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church – presently known as the Grace United Methodist Church –  on State Street. From the ashes a new capitol building was erected — a building that still stands in Harrisburg today.

But from these ashes rose a mystery that remains to this day — what happened to the beautiful columns that stood outside the main entrance of the burned building? Three of the massive columns from the front portico still exist in Central Pennsylvania.

We walked around the column a couple of times, studying the names carved into the red sandstone pillar which towers forty-one feet above the stones of the cemetery.  The named were those from Wayne Township, Clinton County, who served over the years. On one side of the pillar, the history of the column is chiseled information about the pillar’s history, proclaiming that it had come from the front portico of the old capitol building.

The pillar was brought to the cemetery through the efforts of Anna S. Stabley. The column arrived in June of 1898 and sat in pieces for almost two years before finally being erected in May 1900, as a memorial to those who have served in war from Wayne Township, Clinton County.

“Notice the top of the column?” I asked. “It is not the original top of the column. The cone-like top was something added when the column was placed here.”

“What did the top originally look like?” Haylee asked.

“The next one is closer to what the original looked like.”

We left the cemetery and headed back towards Jersey Shore. We navigated the town and entered through the gates of the Jersey Shore Cemetery.

We turned down a narrow roadway that was bordered by pine trees on both sides. Ahead – and in the middle of the road – was the second of the capitol columns we were visiting on this journey. I drove around it and parked a short distance away.

Walking back towards the column, we immediately noted the differences. This one was white, having a coat of paint on it. It is actually taller than the other one due to sitting on top of a five-foot-tall base. A simple plaque stated it was a capitol column dedicated to veterans and a quote from the “The Gettysburg Address.” On the top of the column, a cast soldier stands guard over the cemetery.

“Notice the top of the column?” I pointed it out. “The ornate flat top is what they would have looked like. minus the soldier, of course.”

The monument was dedicated on May 30, 1908, by the citizens of Jersey Shore as a means of honoring locals who fought in the wars. The day of its dedication was complete with speakers, bands, and a large parade. The arrival of this column was the result of the efforts of Captain P.D. Bricker, who was the Commander of the Major Kennon Post G.A.R. in Jersey Shore. Captain Bricker had used his connections in the state government to bring the column to Central Pennsylvania.

“There is a third column south of here on the Lochabar estate,” I spoke. “But the other three of the large columns seemed to have disappeared. At the time they were salvaged, there were a lot of Civil War memorials being erected across the state. I’ve looked into all of the columns I could, but none of them are capitol columns.

“There are two in Harrisburg that border the Market Street Bridge, but – despite what the plaque states – they are not from the front portico. They are too small and had to have come from a side portico.”

“What happened to the other columns?” Haylee asked.

“Newspapers report that the columns were being sold and there were plans to erect them as memorials around Harrisburg. As far as I can tell, this never happened.

“There was mention that a column was sent to Williamsport. But I think this was one of the three columns that were erected in the region and not an additional column.” I paused for a moment as we watched a groundskeeper pass by on a lawnmower. “To be honest, I believe the other columns were dumped into the Susquehanna with the rest of the remains of the Capitol Building.”

“That stinks,” Haylee spoke.

“It is possible some of the smaller columns still exist without people realizing their history. But they – like the other three front portico columns – have vanished into the mists of time.”

We finished paying our respects to those who served in the various wars as we brought our journey to an end. As we left I knew, despite the other columns having vanished, my search for them would never end.

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