Origins of the Fargo Fire

Fighting the Fire

Citizens of Fargo Fighting the Fire

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.

– Chad Halvorson, Digital History, 2012

[1] Oral interview with John Hannaher, NDSU Institute for Regional Studies.

[2] “Special Fire Edition,” Argus (Fargo, ND), June 7, 1894.

Rebuilding a City: A New Approach

Ruins of Citizen National Bank looking northeast from N.P. Avenue after the Fargo, N.D. fire of 1893

The ruins of the Citizen’s National Bank building stnd prominently in the photo while smoke is visible rising from the ruins of the city. People are visible walking around on the streets. [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs007171]

As the ruins of the city smoldered and with distinguishing resolve, Alexander Stern, along with others, hauled lumber onto the scorched earth and began rebuilding immediately to get the businesses up and running with minimal delay.  Within the succeeding year, Stern’s group managed to reestablish 246 buildings at the cost of $968,000 and encourage ongoing reconstruction throughout the devastated districts.  In fact, the Magill and Co. building was the first to boast an indoor elevator after 1893.  By Christmas of 1897, citizens now claimed that “Fargo is substantially built of brick and stone, most of the buildings being two stories bright and new, with paved streets make it an exceedingly handsome and clean city.”[1]  Although the fire undoubtedly cost the city and its citizens millions in financial and emotional devastation, it caused a revision of architectural approaches for a renewed business district that not only helped Fargo overcome the initial and immense losses, but also created a stronger and more capable structure for a lasting city refusing to fade into obscurity.

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.”[2]

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012

[1] “Fargo Souvenir,” folder 1, box 2, Fargo, North Dakota Historical Collection, IRS-NDSU.

[2] “Fargo Souvenir,” folder 1, box 2, Fargo, North Dakota Historical Collection, IRS-NDSU.

Loss and Devastation in Fargo’s Business District

Ruins of the Fargo Fire, June 7th, 1893

An elevated view looking north up Broadway shows ruins after the fire of June 7, 1893, which caused $3 million in damage. Visible in the image is the Northern Pacific railroad crossing at Broadway. Several boxcars are visible on the right side of the image. In the foreground is a tent belonging to Frank L. Gordon, Barber Shop. Also visible along Broadway in the distance  are a sign advertising Magill & Co, other tents and the business T. E. Yerxa. [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs007172]

Wood construction and row developments proved accessible and resourceful for getting Fargo’s business community off the ground, but by the end of the day on June 7, 1893, fire consumed the buildings and businesses on about  160 acres in the center of the city’s thriving  prairie metropolis. As various policy holders claimed $1.7 million from insurance, the net loss on the property insured was $435,000 thousand  and the loss on holdings uninsured likely exceeded $500,000, placing total estimated losses at over $3 million.  Few central areas escaped the reaches of the fire, and the tragedy simultaneously ignited an architectural rethinking before commencing with the arduous task of rebuilding the heart of the city.[1]

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012

[1] “Fargo Souvenir,” folder 1, box 2, Fargo, North Dakota Historical Collection, IRS-NDSU.