Fargo’s Opera House in the Fargo Fire

Fargo Opera ad June 17,1893

Ad for the Fargo Opera the night of the fire. This show would not go on.

The first opera house of Fargo received little respect in its early years for either presentation or design. In November of 1890, Alex Stern and Harry O’Neill offered to build a new opera house for Fargo if the city would provide aid.[1] Stern repeated this offer as late as February of 1892, still hoping to provide a new opera house for the growing city.[2] A theater manager from Minneapolis, Charles A. Parker, acknowledged that Fargo had a good reputation for theatre, but such a reputation was significantly inhibited by the lack of a “handsome theatre.”[3] Plans for rebuilding were discussed, but were not fully implemented. The Fargo Forum on June 7, 1893 announced that there would be an Olde Folke Concerte at the opera house on June 9.[4] The events of June 7 would force that particular show to be postponed.The fire that swept through the city caused $2,000 worth of damage for the manager of the Fargo opera, Charley Gottschalk.[5] The downtown area of Fargo received far greater damage, but the opera house provides an invaluable opportunity to examine the rebuilding effort. As was typical for Fargo businesses following the fire, the opera house would only be out of operation for a short period. Before the end of June, Gottschalk announced his plans for a temporary opera house on Broadway between First and Second Avenue.[6] A crowded house showed up to watch Paige’s Players present Man and Master on July 3, 1893. Though it was obviously only a stopgap measure, the reviewer for the Fargo Forum still thought it was an improvement over the previous location.[7] Numerous productions were held in the temporary location, until winter came and the temporary location found itself redesigned as an ice rink for the winter. By September, Fargoans established plans to build a new opera house to replace the old one. Initially, the backers planned for it to be built on the Keeney block owned by Mr. N. Stanford and Alex Stern. Stanford had put forth the plan, but Alex Stern once again put himself forth as one of the primary advocates. Stanford requested that $5,000 be raised for him to build the opera house, and Stern quickly agreed to provide the first $100. The Fargo Board of Trade took up the plan, though the amount needed had been raised to $7,000. Stanford backed out of the plan, but was replaced by Mr. Hagaman. The overall price settled on was $7,500, and Walter Hancock acquired as the architect. The eventual site agreed upon by the Board of Trade was Second Avenue North, a block west of Broadway.[8] Construction began quickly on the new location, with Hancock taking the initiative. Alex Stern, one of the largest backers, attempted to view the construction of the opera house and was told to leave. Stern noted that this offended him, but he maintained his support for the opera house. By May of 1894, the new opera house opened up to notes of praise in the Fargo Forum. In regards to the lighting, the Forum noted that the new opera house was one of the best equipped in the United States.[9] As with many other businesses, the opera house had risen stronger than it was before.

– Chad Halvorson, Digital History, 2012


[1] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), November 14, 1890.

[2] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), February 16, 1892.

[3] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), May 28, 1892.

[4] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), June 7, 1893.

[5] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), June 8, 1893.

[6] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), June 19, 1893.

[7] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), July 5, 1893.

[8] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), October 14, 1893.

[9] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), May 14, 1894.

Resilience and Rebound: Virtues of Building in Brick

Looking southeast from the Fargo, N.D. Post Office Tower, 1898

An elevated view looks southeast from the top of the Post Office building. A portion of the roof top on Marsh & Loomis Livery building is visible in the lower right corner. There is an Amercian flag flying from a pole on the rooftop. Lower Roberts Street is visible with C.A. Everhart & Co. fronting on the east side. There is a pile of wood stacked along the north side of the Everhart building, and a wagon and some bicycles are parked out front. The ext building to the south is the Fargo City Hall and Firehouse. Also visible in the scene is the rear of Key City Laundry, the ruins of the Headquarters Hotel, the Martin Hotel, and buildings along Front Street. (Main Avenue) [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000796]

Wood continued to provide the framework for more and more business buildings in downtown Fargo and it was not without its merits for other building or business endeavors. However, a majority of the post-fire structures shifted toward predominantly brick or stone constructions.  At the same time, technological advances allowed for increased sophistication and more architecturally sound developments for new commercial and privately-owned businesses in the area. Clearly, the people of Fargo were there to stay despite having faced the worst challenge thus far.

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012

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.