The Great Disaster Virginia State Quarter Coin

Today, the Virginia State Quarter Coin remembers the events of 145 years ago.

On April 27, 1870 during a heavily packed session to settle the Mayor’s race, the Richmond Capitol collapsed.

The Richmond Dispatch newspaper provided insights into what happened:


The Catastrophe

The room of the Court of Appeals was the scene of this horrible occurrence, and its many historic associations and reminiscences have culminated in an affair which beggars description, and which will be remembered as long as Richmond is a city. As is well known, the Mayoralty controversy was about to be decided, and an immense concourse of anxious spectators and listeners had gathered to ascertain the result. Members of the legislature, visitors to the city from all parts of our country, members of the bar, representatives of both police forces of the city, members of the press, and representatives of all classes and conditions of life were assembled.

The bells had just tolled the hour of 11, and death-like silence reigned as Mr. Starke, the clerk, entered and placed his books on the table. Judge Joynes was in his seat. Mr. Starke, leaning over the railing, was talking with him, while the rest of the judges were in the conference room, not quite prepared to enter on their day’s duty. The counsel for Mayor Ellison, Messrs. Neeson and Meredith, had taken their seats, and were ready to proceed to business. Ex-Governor Wells and L. H. Chandler, Esq., were also in their places, and the reporters of the Enquirer, Dispatch, Whig and State Journal were at the desks set apart for their use and accommodation. The moments were spent in pleasant conversation by the spectators present. Various were the speculations as to the final result, when all at once, a panel piece of ceiling fell, and then the girder gave way with an awful crash, and precipitated the spectators who were in the gallery of the courtroom to the main floor, and the additional weight in on single moment’s time crushing the courtroom floor through. The mass of human beings who were in attendance were sent mingled with the bricks, mortar, splinters, beams, iron bars, desks and chairs to the door of the House of Delegates, and in a second more over fifty souls were launched into eternity. The whole atmosphere was thick with a dense cloud of dust from the plastering and the human beings sent up a groan which will ring forever in the ears upon which it fell. In a moment a few survivors clinging to the windows and fragments of hanging timber, and the bare and torn walls, were all that remained to mark the place where only a moment before there was a scene of life, vigor and hope.

The scene about the Capitol building just after the sad occurrence was one of terror. The first notice that those who were in the building had of the impending evil was the premonitory rumbling as the floor was settling. Then there came a fearful crash, accompanied by a cry of human agony and terror which smote the hearts of all who heard it. In a moment the frightful situation was realized. The few who had been so fortunate as to be able to get into the windows shouted aloud for help for those who had fallen, and called for ladders. In a short time the bells were tolling, and the hook and ladder truck being brought upon the spot, the ladders were put up to the windows, and the work of humanity began. The blinding dust within prevented any one from seeing anything, and the rustling of persons within the building and the cries of the wounded was all that could be heard.

In the House of Delegates was a scene that fairly made one’s heart bleed. As the dust cleared away a little a mass of timbers and rubbish of every description was descried, and the reflection of the numbers of human beings crushed beneath its weight, dead and dying, was sickening. Add to this the cries and groans of those who were there, many in the agony of death, and there is a picture to make the stoutest hearts quail. The entire hall was flooded with the ruins, except the space under the gallery. Desks, chairs and tables were crushed completely, showing the force of the falling wreck. The work of removing the debris was a difficult one, but was undertaken by those present with a will, and it was not long before the unfortunate men were being rescued from their painful position.

The doors and windows of the hall were thrown open, and within were soon collected the busy workers, who mid their own shouts and the agonizing groans of those they were seeking to rescue, were removing the timbers. As the wounded and dead were reached, they were brought out and place in the Senate Chamber or else under the trees in the Square, where they were attended by our city physicians and others who were on hand with such appliances as could be obtained. As the men were brought out they were so covered with dust that they could scarcely be recognized, and for a while the anxious inquiries of the bystanders, “Who is he?” could not be answered. One by one they were borne out—the dead and dying. Here was one mangled and silently enduring, another crying aloud with pain, while the still form of a third told too well that its spirit had fled to another world. In one moment the gray hairs of age could be descried upon the head of some dead one, while in the next the tall, manly form of one who had been cut off in the full bloom of life was being borne past. It seemed as if sickening horrors would never cease, and ages seemed to pass in the performance of this sad duty.

The tolling of bells, the rushing and shouting of excited men, and the news of the fearful calamity, which spread like wild-fire over the city in and incredible short space of time, brought an immense crowd of all classes, ages and colors to the Square.

Hundreds of wives, mothers and friends were constantly filling the grounds, who, with wringing hands sought in despair to know if any of their loved ones had been of the number mangled. War, with its horrors, its agonies, its sad separations, its ghastly wounds, its horrible deaths, pictures to the mind no such scene as the one which was yesterday enacted in the Square.

To contemplate upon such a shocking affair—to see the faces of those who expected each moment to find a near and dear friend borne from the ruins to be cared for on the grounds by the citizens and physicians in attendance—fills the soul with horror and awful fear.

Hacks, ambulances and vehicles of all descriptions were promptly on the ground ready to convey the wounded away from the scene of disaster to their homes, where they could be cared for, and their wounds dressed to better advantage than in the dense crowd with which they were surrounded. The dead who had been brought out were respectfully and decently laid aside and covered with blankets, and afterwards borne away to their bereaved families.

Policemen were stationed on the steps of the building to prevent the crowd from rushing in and thereby hindering those who were administering to the relief of the sufferers; and at a late hour the gates of the Square were guarded by Mayor Ellyson’s police, who kept out the crowd of persons who seemed bent on viewing the scene of the disaster.

The excitement of the moment over, the beautiful city of Richmond was wrapped in gloom. The popular heart was sad, the voice of woe and mourning resounded throughout the city, and the asperities of life were softened in the sympathy of a public calamity, leaving our people united in grief and in the desire to show respect for the dead and feeling for the injured. All the business houses of the city were closed and badges of mourning displayed, and save for a number of persons on them, our streets wore the appearance of the Sabbath.


The Virginia State Quarter Coin shows against a background of the Richmond Capitol, circa 1865.

Virginia State Quarter Coin