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Workers Killed During State Capitol Construction, 1898–1903

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David Riehle, John Sielaff, and Victoria Woodcock, researchers
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Men working near the Capitol dome

Men working in the area of the Capitol dome, ca. 1901. Note the lack of hardhats as the workers hoist heavy materials above their heads.

Six workers were killed in accidents during the building of the Minnesota State Capitol between 1898 and 1903. The deaths resulted from unsafe working conditions that labor laws have greatly improved since that time. After being nearly forgotten, the six builders were honored in 2011, 2012, and 2017 by ceremonies and a plaque at the Capitol.

The Minnesota State Capitol came at a cost; six workers died building it. These builders were forgotten for more than 100 years after their deaths.

The first worker to lose his life on the construction project was Felix Arthur, who came north with the marble shipped to St. Paul from a quarry in Georgia. He was working on a stone-polishing machine when he got caught in the flywheel. He died in the hospital several hours later, on May 5, 1898, at the age of twenty-five.

Arthur’s family was prominent, so the Georgia Marble Company paid for his elaborate grave marker in Nelson, Georgia. The families of later Capitol accident victims did not receive such support.

All other statehouse deaths were caused by falls. John Biersack, the thirty-six-year-old son of Bavarian immigrants to Wisconsin, died in October 1898, a few days after he fell from a hoist. Like all of the other fatal accident victims, Biersack was unmarried and had no children.

A freak accident killed twenty-year-old Albert Swanson, a mold caster from Sweden. The St. Paul Globe’s headline for the story summarized the incident: “Passing Wagon Drives over Rope used to Hoist Materials and Scaffolding, on Which Men Stood, Falls.” Swanson and Frank Thiery fell forty feet; Swanson collided with scaffolding and died before hitting the ground. Thiery landed on a pile of sand and broke his leg but was able to go home from the hospital that night.

Another Swedish immigrant, twenty-year-old stonemason Alfred Magnuson, was the nephew of Capitol master stonemason Nils Nelson. Magnuson fell thirty feet on June 25, 1900. He died in St. Joseph’s Hospital four days later.

Florian Zauner was born in Germany forty years before he worked as a laborer on the Capitol, where he fell seventy feet and died immediately on August 3, 1900. Few details about the lives of Zauner and Magnuson survive, and their graves are unmarked.

On June 25, 1903, eighteen-year-old John Corrigan fell thirty-two feet to his death in the unfinished House Chamber. After less than two weeks on the job, Corrigan had lost his balance while carrying a heavily-loaded wheelbarrow across a narrow and unguarded gangway.

These accidents stirred controversy about unsafe conditions at the Capitol site. An 1899 St. Paul Globe headline read, "Railing Is Needed There—Safety Device Suggested By The Labor Bureau For Capitol Workers."

By June 27, 1903, the outrage in the Minneapolis Journal headline was clear: "Deaths Due To Neglect." The article noted that contractors had been ordered to widen high runways, but they were still too narrow “to protect a man from momentary dizziness.” The outcry over young Corrigan's death may finally have changed worksite conditions. He was the last worker to die during construction of the Capitol, which opened to the public in 1905.

While inspectors visited worksites and issued safety orders, they did not have the power to make employers pay fines or face legal consequences. Attitudes about worksite hazards were also different then. HGA architect Ginny Lackovic, who supervised the 2010 Capitol dome repairs, said, "I think the level of safety when this building was built was based on everybody's sense of their own judgment. Your safety was your own responsibility and if you made a mistake you paid dearly for it."

Because worker’s compensation laws weren’t enacted in Minnesota until 1913, receiving compensation for workplace accidents required proving negligence by the employer and proper behavior by the employee—a difficult, expensive, and time-consuming process. Mutual benefit societies and unions provided some illness, accident, and death assistance.

Safety laws and technical innovations have greatly improved workplace safety in the 2000s. Insurance programs help those who are injured or killed.

The six builders were finally recognized publicly during Workers Memorial Day ceremonies in 2011 and 2012. They were honored by a plaque installed in the Capitol in 2017, thanks to a group of Owatonna middle school students who, after studying the Labor Education Service’s Capitol project website, successfully lobbied for a bill authorizing the memorial.

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  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

119.C.4.5.B
Board of State Capitol Commissioners. Records, 1892–1914. Minnesota Historical Society
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Biennial Report, 1899–1900
State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Includes information on numbers of people employed, their occupations, working time and weekly wages, inspection reports and accident statistics broken down by occupation.

119.C.4.5.B
Bureau of Labor Statistics Biennial Reports, 1888–1930
Minnesota Labor and Industry Department
State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: The 1903–04 report has detailed information on Minnesota accidents and strikes.

“Capitol Accident Fatal.” St. Paul Globe, June 30, 1900.

“Capitol Gets Sixth Victim.” St. Paul Globe, June 26, 1903.

PR 21
Carsley, George H. "Daily Memorandum" and "Minnesota State Capitol Report"
Cass Gilbert Collection, 1883–1952
Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections
New-York Historical Society, New York.
http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/nyhs/Gilbert/
Description: Correspondence between Capitol architect Cass Gilbert in New York and assistant George Carsley at the Capitol site in St. Paul.

“Cole Has a Chance.” St. Paul Globe, May 22, 1899.

Davis, Julie. Unpublished research files on Capitol construction. Minnesota State Capitol Historic Site, St. Paul.

"Deaths Due to Neglect." Minneapolis Journal, June 27, 1903.

“Dies from the Fall.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, October 21, 1898.

“His Fall Fatal.” St. Paul Globe, October 22, 1898.

“Killed at New Capitol.” St. Paul Globe, August 4, 1900.

"One Dead, One Injured." St. Paul Globe, April 28, 1900.

"Only Lived a Few Hours." St. Paul Daily Globe, May 6, 1898.

Who Built Our Capitol? Oral history interview with Ginny Lackovic, HGA architect, conducted by Randy Croce, November 2010.
https://whobuiltourcapitol.advantagelabs.com/articles/ginny-lackovic-architect-interview

"Railing Is Needed There." St. Paul Globe, June 7, 1899.

"Some Bad Accidents." St. Paul Globe, May 21, 1899.

“The City: Friday’s Findings.” St. Paul Dispatch, October 21, 1898.

U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Fatal Occupational Injuries Counts and Rates By Selected Industries, 2016–17,” Table 4.
https://www.bls.gov/news.release/cfoi.t04.htm

Who Built Our Capitol?
www.whobuiltourcapitol.org

“Workers’ Memorial Day 2011. YouTube video, 1:21. Labor Education Service, 2011.
https://youtu.be/1f6E6ncvEZM

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Capitol dome interior during construction
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Workers on a temporary platform
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Capitol builders’ memorial plaque

Turning Point

After the sixth Capitol construction worker dies in 1903, public outcry brings about safer conditions, preventing further deaths.

Chronology

1896

Construction of the third Minnesota State Capitol begins.

May 4, 1898

Twenty-five-year-old Felix Arthur is fatally injured in the first accidental death at the Capitol construction site.

October 20, 1898

Thirty-seven-year-old John Biersack falls from a hoist and dies several days later.

June 7, 1899

A St. Paul Globe article reports that the Labor Bureau had suggested using safety railings at the Capitol site.

April 27, 1900

A scaffold is accidentally pulled down, killing Albert Swanson and injuring Frank Thiery.

June 25, 1900

Stonemason Alfred Magnuson, twenty-three, falls and never regains consciousness, dying on June 29 in St. Joseph Hospital.

August 3, 1900

Forty-year-old Florian Zauner is killed in a fall.

June 26, 1903

Eighteen-year-old John Corrigan dies when he falls while moving a wheelbarrow.

June 27, 1903

A Minneapolis Journal headline charges that the Capitol worksite deaths are due to neglect.

December 19, 1970

President Nixon signs the Occupational Safety and Health Act that establishes OSHA, which regulates conditions at workplaces. The agency greatly improves job safety.

April 28, 2011

The Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council holds the annual Workers' Memorial Day on the Capitol grounds, honoring five of the workers who died during the Capitol's construction.

April 28, 2012

The sixth Capitol construction worker who died is honored in the annual memorial ceremony.

August 13, 2017

A plaque honoring the six who died, as well as all workers who built and restored the State Capitol, is installed in the building.