In 1893, Fargo was struck by a devastating fire. Here is a brief description of the events of the fire, combined with indelible images from the event itself.
-Chad Halvorson, Digital History 2012
In 1893, Fargo was struck by a devastating fire. Here is a brief description of the events of the fire, combined with indelible images from the event itself.
-Chad Halvorson, Digital History 2012
This is a slideshow video reading of two poems written by an unknown Fargo resident and J.H. Burke following and regarding the Fargo Fire of 1893. Please click the links below to view video presentations of these poems on YouTube.[divider scroll]
“In our peaceful, quiet city,
(Oh what a change that day would see,)
That seventh day of June,
Eighteen hundred ninety-three;
None e’en deemed that swift destruction
Soon would come a rushing down,
Till the cry of fire! fire! Was heard ringing throughout town.
Then excitement and confusion
Reigned where peace reigned just before,
As the red-tongued, fiery monster
Madly swept the city o’er.
Bells pealed forth their notes of warning,
Mingled with the whistles’ scream,
And the fire’s roar and crackle,
Shouts of men and hiss of steam.
Onward swept the fiery tempest
Sweeping all within its track,
And it seemed no human effort
Could beat the flaming demon back.
Bravely fought the “fire ladies,”
Bravely fought man, woman, child;
But the fiery fiend was master
And on it swept in fury wild.
But relief was swiftly coming
From our noble sister Casselton,
And from other sisters near;
We soon met the monster’s frown.
Then was turned the tide of battle
And we ere the set of sun,
Had conquered the red monster;
But oh, such work as he had done.
Where once stood in seeming safety
Lovely home and business place,
Naught is left but blackened ruins
Which time alone can e’er erase
While it cost us precious treasure,
Yet it cost no precious life;
Although home’s gone, still remaining
Are the children, husband, wife.
We’ll ever hold in kind remembrance
All who helped us on that day.
And with emphasis we thank you.
It is all that we can say.
Let us offer now oblation
Until God who ruleth all,
And give heed to His commandments
Lest a worse thing us befall.
-Unknown—June 7, 1893
Fargo, Dakota’s prairie queen,
IN peaceful plenty lay
Begirt by fields of waving green
That sultry summer day.
Her lofty blocks of brick and stone
Seemed towering to the sky,
And cast their cooling shadows down
Upon the passer by.
The farmers from the country round
Did throng each busy street,
Their friends and neighbors greet;
For every road to Fargo led,
As did the roads of old
To Rome, when she by Tiber’s bed,
The restless world controlled.
And business men with eager face,
And keen observant eyes,
Were flitting by from place to place
As bee its calling plies;
And lovely women lent their grace
Unto the busy scene;
And childhood, with its guileless face,
Amidst the throng was seen.
When suddenly a shout was heard
Of agony and fear;
And through the noise the thrilling word
Of fire, struck on the ear.
Then other voices swelled the cry,
And soon the deep-voiced bell
Was pealing from the belfry high;
The doomed city’s knell.
And shooting up in whirling bands,
A smoking pillar rose,
Black as that, which on Egypt’s sands,
Screened Israel from its foes;
And spurting through the inky cloud,
The blood-red flames appear,
Like those which from Jehovah’s cloud,
Filled Pharaoh’s hosts with fear
And o’er their heads the south wind strong,
The blazing embers tossed
And soon the word was passed along,
“The water fails, all’s lost.”
But still they bravely stood their ground,
And did all men could do;
While overhead and all around
Naught but flames met their view.
The Fire Fiend rode upon the blast,
From roof to roof he sprang;
And round his fiery darts he cast,
And loud his laughter rang.
A sea of fire with human shore,
He saw beneath his feet;
Louder and louder grew his roar,
And fiercer grew the heat.
Twas o’er a hundred acres lay,
A lake of shouldering fire,
And perished in that swift decay
Had wall, and roof, and spire.
And homeless hundreds stood that night, beneath the drenching rain
Nor hoped nor cared to see the light
Of morning dawn again.
But one short year has passed away,
And now I stand once more
Just where I stood that awful day
Upon that red sea’s shore.
And what a change—that fiery flood
I see no longer there.
But stately blocks and mansions good
Have risen everywhere.
The massive blocks of brick and stone
The stranger doth amaze
As when Aladdin’s palace shone
Upon the sultan’s gaze.
I see the men, as good as gold,
Who’ve build again their town,
And lovely women, as of old,
Are passing up and down.
—J. H. Burke, June 7 1894
 Masonic Library Staff. Fargo Masonic Files. Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, 1979. Print.
O.J. deLendrecie was born in Canada and worked all around the world before coming to Fargo in 1879. He built the Chicago Dry Goods House, which did an amazing business. He owned a good amount of land around the city. On the night of November 24th, 1893 a blaze started in Holzer’s Cigar store in the back of the Park Hotel. One of the townsfolk was walking by when he discovered the flames in the back of the store. He proceeded to kick in the door to alert everyone and sent word for the fire department. They were able to remove most of the stock from the cigar store and hotel, but the flames did a lot of damage. The firemen moved on to protect Ehrman’s Candy Palace, which was next door. The firemen thought that they had protected the building, until flames started to come out of the roof. The belief is that a few of the embers started it and it went unnoticed. In a few moments the Candy Palace was worse off than the hotel in which the fire started. O.J. deLendrecie owned both of the properties the fire affected; he did not have insurance on either of the properties. Both of the buildings were burned past repair.
– Mathias Zastrow, Digital History, 2012.
Historically, women in the West were portrayed in a stereotypical manner: they were either the unwilling followers of husbands who were seeking wealth and adventure, or the rebellious Annie Oakley types or brothel operators. The reality of women’s lives in the West is entirely different. Mary Dodge Woodward helped her son manage her cousin’s farm by maintaining the household. She cooked for up to 30 people during certain times of the year, as well as cleaning, sewing, and other household tasks. While many women on the plains were unwilling participants in their husbands’ searches for wealth, other women prospered in the West. Some, like Ellen Cooley, opened boarding houses for travelers and others threw decadent parties on the plains.
Mary Dodge Woodward kept a diary from 1884-1888 while she was living in the Dakota territory on a Bonanza farm. She discusses a variety of topics, from the ever-changing Dakota weather to education, crime, natural disasters, and alcohol use.
Here are various excerpts from her diary in chronological order by topic:
Mary Dodge Woodward did not drink and therefore had a somewhat negative view of people who did. While she had a negative view she also felt sorry for people who lost their money drinking or died in a blizzard due to alcoholic excess. Over the years on the farm, she stuck to her convictions and was happy when, in 1887, Cass County supported prohibition.
1884- “I think nine-tenths of the people who have frozen to death in Dakota have been under the influence of intoxicating drink. A clear brain is needed to find refuge in this storm”.
1885-“The law requires an order to buy strychnine; yet whiskey kills ten-thousand where strychnine does one”.
1887-“If we kept a saloon it would be a town. That is the first thing in a new western town”.
1887-“The County of Cass has gone strong for prohibition. Now the saloons will go from Fargo to Moorhead, just across the Red River into Minnesota. I hope the country will soon pass a prohibition law which is the only way to reach one class of drunkards”.
There was not a day in her diary that Mary did not at least mention the weather. We all know how dynamic, and frequently crazy, the weather in North Dakota is and it greatly affects life today as well as early life in the territory.
1887-Mary and her family lived through the coldest temperature in recorded history as of 1937.
1888-“Dakota is different in many ways from the country down east. Nobody keeps track of his neighbors here. People come and go; families move in and out, and nobody asks whence they came nor whither they go”.
Mary did not do the hard labor expected of farm hands, like her sons and the many men they hired every season. While she was not directly involved with farm work, Mary knew a good deal about farming, raising animals, and the value of quality goods.
1884-“Dakota is a fine place for vegetables, especially peas. We have great quantities of them. The men are haying, all thirteen of them, and we send their dinners to the fields…Tonight I went out of doors and there, by the corner of the house, stood three tramps. They wanted to sleep in the barn, so Walter took them some blankets…The country is full of men tramping about and begging at farm houses where they stop to hire out”.
1884- The following is an excerpt from a prayer given during a church service, which shows how valuable wheat is to farmers in Dakota. “We know the value of wheat, O Lord, but we pray thee to tell us what we should receive when we deliver it”.
1885-“There is no better market for eggs in America. I think some enterprising people might get rich in this business. Now that wheat is so low, farmers should turn their attention to some other industry”.
1886-“It [mustard] is overrunning the country. The authorities are trying to compel the owners of the land to pull it under the law against noxious weeds. The people have been warned by officers of the law that, if allowed to remain, it would be pulled by the county and a tax put on the land to pay the expense. But we think it will be difficult for the county to enforce the law or collect the tax”.
1885-“Our little nigger cat has been having fits. This is the fifth one that has had them.” “Our cow, Daisy, gives a pailful of milk, and what do you think, we have cream in our coffee!”
1888-p. 243 “I think wheat will rise in price, for there is a shortage everywhere, so the papers say. We have hoped for that change for six years and now that we are about ready to leave, it has come”.
1888-“It’s [butter] thirty-five cents a pound in Fargo”.
Mary’s writing on crime seems to be merely reporting. She does not have much of an opinion on crime except the Louis Riel execution, which she believes will not end the Metis insurrection.
1884-“The Fargo Argus reports that an unknown man tried to assassinate Sitting Bull Wednesday evening in St. Paul as he left the Opera House. The motive is thought to be revenge and the would-be assassin is supposed to be a relative of one of the Custer Massacre victims. The frontiersmen are disgusted with the way the old Indian is being lionized. People say he would lead his braves on the warpath at the slightest provocation, scattering murder and rapine wherever he left”.
1885-“We have just heard that the man who was murdered in the car of wheat was a Norwegian from Tower City who had just sold his claim for $1,000. Part of the money was paid him in gold, which the murderer must have taken from his pockets”.
1885-“I supposed Louis Riel was hanged today in Canada; but I am afraid that will not end the insurrection”.
Without a television or a radio to pass time, life on the farm must have been pretty boring at times. Mary mentions in many entries about various books she and her children are reading at night after a hard day’s work. She also mentions in passing other ways the girls and boys on the farm pass time.
1884-“The girls are sewing, crocheting, ironing, and visiting, and so passing the time which is very pleasant to me. Evenings they make molasses candy and invite in the farm hands”.
Mary has a little more to say about politics in the country as well as Dakota, especially when the question of a liquor license was raised in Cass County. She also mentions the unkind remarks made by the candidates for Sheriff; just goes to show that not much has changed since 1886 in terms of politics and mudslinging.
1884-“Today is the great national election and what a lot of excitement will prevail over all the land! The boys have gone to Fargo where they will remain in the theatre to hear the election bulletins read”.
1885-“A book agent called with The Lives of Cleveland and Hendricks. We will wait until their term at Washington expires before we buy, as we might possibly be ashamed of them”.
1886-“There has been great excitement in Cass County over the election of a sheriff. Part of our men are for Benson and part, for Haggart. I shall be glad when the election is over for the papers teem with the meanness of each candidate. One would think they ought to be hanged instead of elected to a responsible office”.
1888-“Cleveland was nominated for president on the sixth, and Thurman for vice president on the seventh at the St. Louis convention. (I wrote the above in the dark. I am not sure but that it is an improvement)”.
1888-“Fred has gone to Mapleton to election. He wishes he were out of the territory so that he could vote for Cleveland. The liquor license question is the greatest subject of controversy here now”.
Remember when grandparents used to talk about walking to school when they were little? “I had to walk two miles to school in a blizzard, uphill both ways” is not very far from some of the truths that Mary talks about in her diary. In addition to tragedies and deaths during blizzards, Mary also talks about courageous acts to save children’s lives.
1884-“The school closed today and there will be no more until spring. Last winter the attendance was so small that it was thought advisable to have no winter school”.
1885-“Katie has twenty scholars in her school” (Woodward 1989, 66).
1887-“The farmers hereabouts have been quarreling over the location of the schoolhouse”.
1888-“Some of the school children stopped here today completely exhausted from the heat. They walk two miles”.
Mary’s discussion of sickness in the territory gives a good insight into what people used when they fell ill. She also mentions the lack of sickness in the area since doctors charge a lot of money to go into the country; it might not have been a lack of sickness so much as people refusing to call a doctor when they did get sick.
1884-“I was sick all day yesterday. Walter brought me Cherry Pectoral, Bushe’s German Liniment, two bottles of medicine from the doctor, peppermint brandy; besides oranges, candy, and gum”.
1885-“There are very few sick people in this country. We have not had to call a physician once since we came here which is fortunate as doctors charge a great deal to go into the country”.
Mary mentioned in one of her entries that she was fixing up a dress for Katie, which was prohibited in Oregon; maybe the dress caused pollution and landslides as well.
1885-“in Pendleton, Oregon, that type of costume is prohibited unless worn belted. Bills to that effect have been posted in the town, ladies who violate the ordinance being fined heavily. The alleged reason is that such garments ‘scare horses, cause accidents, and ruin business’”.
In addition to blizzards, Mary talked about other natural disasters, like fires and tornadoes in the area. She mentioned a number of people perishing in the winter due to the wind and in the summer due to tornadoes and wildfires. A good number of the people who died from the fire were farmers trying to put out the fire spreading on their fields or into their crop stores.
1885-Mary detailed the effects of a prairie fire around the farms in the area. Some of their wheat was burned but not as badly as on other farms.
1886-“A terrible cyclone in Minnesota which tore the villages of St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids all to pieces, killing about a hundred persons and injuring about two hundred more”.
1886-“The fire started from a spark from a train on the Northern Pacific. I supposed the railroad company will be responsible for the hay burned”.
Mary did not mention many businesses in her diary over the years. This could have been due to the fact that in all of the years Mary lived about 8 miles from Fargo, she rarely went into the city.
1886-Mary wrote in her diary that her children went to see Oliver Dalrymple’s farm. She said he was the farm king of the region and his 28,000 acre farm “is the largest cultivated area under one control in the territory. His crop has been known to exceed 600,000 bushels; and as many as 195 reapers are used to wake the echoes there in harvest”.
1887-Mary mentioned one of the cooks they hired came to them from the “Gay Cook House” in Fargo. She also mentioned he is fat and lazy.
In addition to the excerpt in the politics section about the man selling a book about the lives of Cleveland and Hendricks, Mary wrote about other people coming by to sell goods or just looking for shelter and perhaps a job. The first extract also gives an insight into the relationships between Catholics and Protestants in the area.
Throughout the years in her diary, Mary used poetry to convey emotions and supplement the stories she wrote.
1888-Poem by self, “Oh haste little birdie to some warmer clime, The wind whistles o’er the bleak wold, The stubble is brown and all seared with the rime, Fierce winter is coming, so cold!”
– Brenna Adams, Digital History, 2012
For more information on Ellen Cooley see “The ‘Boom’ Through the Eyes of Cooley” posted by Murchison on this site.
For more information on Bonanza farms see “Bonanza Farming West of Fargo” posted by Jenna Clawson and “Mary Dodge Woodward” posted by Brenna Adams.
Dodge Woodward, Mary. The Checkered Years: A Bonanza Farm Diary 1884-1888. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989.
Peter Elliott was a man who moved to Fargo in April 1893. Before he moved, he worked on a steamboat sailing up and down the Red River, to and from Winnipeg. After his time working on the steamboat, he spent two years working as a surveyor for the United States surveyors. When he relocated to Fargo, he opened a restaurant in the basement of Martin Hector’s building on the corner of Front and Fifth. His restaurant was very popular among the Fargo citizens. In 1882 he leased a massive three story building that was located just to the west side of where the Citizens National Bank was located. Here, he opened his hotel, “The Elliott House”, and restaurant of the same name. Both the restaurant and hotel grew in popularity within the community. It grew so much in popularity that Peter Elliott had to turn people away nearly every night because both had reached full capacity. When the fire ravaged the city in 1893, it destroyed the building, a loss of approximately $10,000. The devastation of the fire didn’t keep Elliott down for long. It wasn’t more than five days after the fire and Elliott already had tents set up and was serving food to the distraught citizens of Fargo. Elliott did his best to run a first class operation, even if it was under canvas. Very quickly he entered an agreement with I.P. Clapp to invest in the Syndicate Block. He had a two story structure built for his new Elliot House. It had offices, a kitchen and multiple dining rooms on the first floor, and hotel apartments up on the top story. The entire building was heated by steam and illuminated by electricity. – Mathias Zastrow, Digital History, 2012
The morning of June 7th did not presage any great change, save for a sultry wind blowing thirty miles per hour and a temperature that was to reach 88 degrees. At 2:15 on June 7th, the “fire laddies” were called to deal with a fire that seemed to have started behind Herzman’s Dry Goods store on 512 Front Street. The beginnings of the fire proved to be somewhat controversial. As a young man, John Hannaher was to bear witness to the events. According to his remembrance “the fire started back of the store next to the corner of Broadway and Main Avenue. The back of that, there is someone in back of the Herzman store to burn some rubbish, it caught onto the store and then it spread.” In his own remembrances, John’s brother Thomas was to repeat this information on the start of the fire. The owner of Herzman’s Dry Goods did not accept this story, however. It would seem likely that he was uncomfortable to be so directly associated with the destructive fire that overtook Fargo’s business district. Herzman did, however, find a great deal of support for his assertion that the fire did not start from the rear of his store but rather from an adjoining building.Local businessman Max Stern was one of the first individuals on the scene, as his business was close to the beginning of the fire. He noted that by his arrival, the fire had not yet taken hold of Herzman’s Dry Goods. J. B. Folsom claimed to be the first person reaching the point of origin of the Fargo fire, and he was “well satisfied that it started on the outside of the frame building to the west of your store and when I reached the fire it had not reached your store building.” The accounts of E. F. Steele and L. S. Seare supported this sequence of events. The strongest indication that the conventional wisdom on the beginnings of the fire being incorrect came from Sam P. Kelly, the superintendent of the water works. Kelly was the individual who pulled the alarm to announce the fire, and stated positively that the origin of the fire was not the Dry Goods store. He indicated that the origin of the fire was several doors west of Herzman’s. The statements to this effect were provided by Herzman, and are to his own benefit. The statements do effectively contradict other accounts, and seem very valid. The story of Herzman’s Dry Goods rubbish being the origin of the Fargo fire seems to have a similarity to the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow being responsible for the devastating fire from years earlier in Chicago. Both have become accepted as accurate, though both also seem to be somewhat mythologized. The statements also contradicted the story of the fire starting at the rear of the Little Gem restaurant due to hot ashes blowing to Herzman’s. Despite the unclear beginning to the fire, the events that followed were well documented.
In fact, Alexander Stern became Vice President of the Fargo Packing and Cold Storage Company with the organization and opening of a new building on April 1, 1896. With a new brick warehouse, the Fargo Packing and Cold Storage Co. processed over 20,000 cattle, 50,000 hogs and 25,000 sheep purchased from farmers across the state. As a result, Stern and his business partners gave a home market to the ranchers of North Dakota of at least ten percent higher rate for their livestock than could be obtained by shipping East and also saving on delays, spoilage, shrinkage, and commissions to boot. At the time, the Fargo Packing and Cold Storage Co.’s sale department covered all of North Dakota, Northern Minnesota, and Eastern Montana. Proprietors even stated that, “the goods turned out are equal to the products of any of the large packing houses in Eastern cities.”
-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012
n 1893, Fargo was destroyed by a devastating fire. Whatever the origin, Sam Kelley spotted the fire from the waterworks in Island Park. He pulled the alarm to alert the city to the fire. Unfortunately, such communication only indicated that a fire existed and did not provide information specific to its location. Wallace Rice, a volunteer fireman who was working west of Broadway, rushed to clarify the location. The key to the fire alarm box was located in Sundberg Jewelry Store. Unfortunately, the clerk in the jewelry store had no idea where the key was to allow for the identifying alarm to be sounded. Rice alerted a nearby police officer to the concern, and finally was able to activate the alarm. By the time they had accomplished this task, the Yerxa Hose Company arrived on the scene. Some individuals indicated consderable concern with the oncoming fire, but most found comfort in the belief that Fargo had an exceptional group of firefighters.
The flames quickly spread from to the Little Gem restaurant and then to nearby buildings. One of the buildings was a gun store, and the inventory included a keg of powder and innumerable cartridges. When the fire reached this inventory, an explosion of powder rocked the afternoon air and multiple cracks from the exploding cartridges followed. The fire reduced the wooden buildings to ash in a very short period of time. The fire destroyed nearby buildings, but missed Crane’s restaurant, although the intense heat marred the facade and destroyed the windows.
The fire might have ended if not for the winds that assisted the flames in leaping across Front Street to take hold of Magill’s warehouse. According to John Hannaher, pieces of twine were on top of the warehouse. Those on the scene fighting the fire turned their attention to the warehouse, but pieces of twine on the top of the warehouse caught fire and spread throughout Broadway. At that point, the winds propelled the fire on a path of devastation through the Fargo business district.
The fire moved toward the Western Union offices, setting one of the few brick buildings in Fargo ablaze. By this point, the residents of the business district had realized that the fire was out of control. Their efforts turned to attempting to save items of value and import from the oncoming flames, even recruiting those that were watching the fire to aid in the efforts. The fire spread to the Red River Valley Bank Building, and it was soon destroyed. The nearby Fargo Forum building was the next to go as the fire continued. The flames spread east from the Magill warehouse toward the harvesting warehouses on N. P. Avenue and Front Street. The Argus would later provide a vivid description of what onlookers saw, noting, “Hell itself could not have presented a more terrible picture.” Winds continued to stymie the efforts of those fighting the fire and again propelled the fire to leap across N. P. Avenue and consume the opera house block. Buildings on this block included the Fargo Opera Hall, the Merchant’s State Bank, Hellberg’s Jewelry Store, Yoder and Lewis Grocery, the Great Northern Express Company, and a variety of professional offices. The fire continued unabated, moving north to the Republican building, home to J.J. Jordan’s Evening Republican newspaper. The block was totally destroyed with little saved.
From the Republican block, the blaze went across Second Avenue and engulfed the ornamentation of one of the businesses. Then the blaze spread to the Keeney block, owned by N. Stanford and Alexander Stern. The fire destroyed a wide array of businesses on its rampage, including Freeman’s China Hall Tea Store, Kop Brothers Music House, as well as the Alex Stern Building. The flames reached the Masonic Hall on the Stern block, destroying everything in the building (including the extensive Masonic Library). The destruction continued through to Alex Stern’s Palace Clothing Store and the legal and judicial offices above the clothing store. On the corner of Broadway and N. P. also stood the Citizens National Bank, which withstood the fire longest. Firefighters from as far away as Casselton were by that time tending to the blaze, and they concentrated their efforts on this location. The basement of the building included, somewhat ironically, the Thomas Baker Jr. Fire Insurance offices, and the second floor housed the United States Court Room. The fire continued west, destroying the Elliott Hotel.
In only two hours’ time, the flames progressed over a mile through the city and set approximately two hundred buildings on fire. Some brick buildings had been constructed, but there were far more wooden buildings, and they readily caught fire. The wooden structures stymied the efforts of firefighters to stop the flames that swept through the city. Nonetheless, the fire ran its course by 7 p.m. In less than five hours, approximately 160 developed acres of Fargo were destroyed.
-Chad Halvorson, Digital History 2012
 Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), June 7, 1893.
 John Hannaher oral interview, NDSU Institute for Regional Studies.
 Thomas Hannher’s “Fargo Fire Memory”, NDSU Institute for Regional Studies.
 “Special Fire Edition,” Argus (Fargo, ND), June 7, 1894.
 Deed, Cass County Courthouse.
 Image of Stern block destruction, NDSU Institute for Regional Studies.
 Image of destruction of Citizens National Bank, NDSU Institute for Regional Studies.