The Great Bismarck Fire of 1898
Like Fargo in 1893 and Chicago in 1871, Bismarck fell victim to a massive wind-whipped fire on August 8th, 1898.
As was the case with so many pioneer-era cities around the nation, Bismarck in 1898 was a city constructed largely of wood. When coupled with a frequently unrelenting prairie wind, any unusual dry spell created extraordinarily dangerous conditions.
In fact, the city of Bismarck had dodged a bullet eight years earlier when a fire in the spring of 1890 nearly set off an inferno downtown. The Sunday Inter Ocean newspaper in Chicago reported on March 26th, 1890:
Incendiarism at Bismarck, N. D.
Some one tried to burn up the town this morning. At 2 o’clock an incendiary started a blaze between two empty buildings, with the wind blowing sixty miles an hours. The old opera-house on Third street, the laundry building belonging to George P. Flannery of Minneapolis and the Judkins photograph gallery were burned. The sparks also set fire to two small houses two blocks distant. Only the wet roofs from the recent snows saved half of the town. About the same hour a fire was started in a lumber yard in the east end of town, but it was put out in a short time.
Considering that close call, it’s somewhat surprising to note that eight years later in 1898, just five years after Fargo suffered a devastating fire, Bismarck still had only a volunteer fire department.
According to a story published in the New York Times on August 10th, 1898, the Great Bismarck Fire broke out in the Agent’s office of the Northern Pacific depot and spread to the freight warehouse. Someone raised the alarm around 9 pm, but the winds were already fanning the flames out of control.
The Bismarck Daily Tribune reported on August 9th, 1898:
“So vast a volume of smoke poured forth that in ten minutes Main Street was a stifling, blinding atmosphere in which it was difficult for firemen to breathe. A slight wind which had been in progress when the first alarm was given freshened and carried dense clouds of smoke and vast showers of sparks and firebrands northward into the principal business portion of the city. The freight warehouse, a hundred feet in length and fifth in width stored with all manner of inflammables, was in a moment a seething furnace.”
At least two powder kegs exploded and Bismarck blogger and author Randy Hoffman recounts the explosions as reported by the Bismarck Daily Tribune the next day:
“Simultaneous with an explosion in the freight warehouse, an immense section of the roof was lifted high into the air, and the flames, which had been checked for a time, leaped forward with renewed vigor and fury.”
The fire raged out of control until midnight and smoldered until the following morning. The list of structures completely destroyed by the fire is shocking in magnitude:
- First National Bank
- Kuntz’s and Wan’s cigar factories
- Gussner’s, Slattery’s, Kupitz’s, and Sweet’s grocery stores
- Penwarden’s confectionary store
- Morris’s and Braithwaithe’s shoe stores
- Hare’s Hardware
- Tribune Publishing Company
The full list is much longer, including judges’ and attorneys’ offices, restaurants and numerous other stores. According to the New York Times story, every drug store in the city burned, most of the grocery stores, two newspapers, and even some residences. People were homeless. Wired communications were also disrupted for a time and Western Union struggled to continue operating. According to the Tribune story, communications were so poor that Mandan Fire Departments weren’t able to respond until local residents noticed the glow of the fire on the horizon, by which time it was much too late.
The news of the fire overshadowed another major event the morning after the fire. Governor Frank A. Briggs, the fifth Governor of North Dakota, died of consumption. The Bismarck Daily Tribune reported on August 9th, 1898:
Since his return from California, where he went last winter, the governor has been gradually failing. About two weeks ago his illness resulted in such feebleness that he was taken to his bed, and his weakness has grown until the end, which came this morning. […] The news of the death of the governor cast an additional gloom over the residents of the city, already prostrated in many cases from the fearful conflagration of last night.
He was placed on a couch on the porch of the executive mansion where he spent his last hours watching the capital city burn. He was the first North Dakota Governor to die in office.
Like Chicago and Fargo, Bismarck would be rebuilt bigger and better in brick and stone.
On the rebirth of the city, Randy Hoffmann says:
The Fire of 1898 helped propel Bismarck from its shantytown frontier roots. Rising from its ashes, the seed for a modern city would soon sprout, one better suited for meeting the needs of a major economic and government hub. Bismarck saw its rebirth.
At the time of the fire, much of Bismarck was built of wood… food for the raging fire. In response to the fire, the city enacted stricter fire codes, making way for sturdier, modern structures built mostly of brick and reinforced concrete. “Fireproof” labeling became a common advertising gimmick for the new, modern buildings.
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