June 8, 2021 — On this day in 1893, a huge portion of Fargo was smoldering after being burned to the ground. At 2:15 the previous afternoon, something took placed behind Herzman’s Dry Goods Store at 512 Front Street – or current-day Main Avenue.

According to a Fargo Forum special edition, the fire began when someone from the Little Gem Restaurant threw ashes out the back door, and the dry goods store caught fire. Another version states that Lily Herzman was burning cardboard packing cartons behind the store and that the flames spread to the building.

A 30-mile-an-hour wind whipped the fire quickly northward, taking everything in its path. At that time, almost every building in Fargo was made of wood, as were the sidewalks.

Almost all of the town’s 6000 resident lost their homes, and the downtown businesses were wiped out, including City Hall and most of its records.

There were a number of factors that contributed to the catastrophe. The nearest fire alarm box was several blocks away, and it required a key that, unfortunately, nobody could find. Ironically, a fire station was located right across the street from where the blaze began, but the men and trucks were out sprinkling streets to keep the dust down. By the time all three of Fargo’s fire companies arrived, the fire was out of control. It was a further irony that one of those companies – the Yerxa Hose Company – once held the world’s record in the fire-hose race. Fire fighters also came rushed from Moorhead, Casselton, Grand Forks and Wahpeton to help, but they were too late to stop the fire’s rapid advance.

In all, more than 160 acres were destroyed, including more than 31 blocks from the NP railway line to 5th Avenue north – and either side of Broadway from the Red River west to the open prairie. It was reported that 219 businesses and 140 homes were destroyed.

Concerns over fire issues had been voiced in the years leading up to the loss, and steps had been taken to limit the number of wooden buildings being erected. There’s also evidence that there had been controversy in the fire department, and that city officials had identified fire hazards and had tried various methods of correcting them prior to the fire.

After the catastrophe, city leaders adopted stricter building codes, and most reconstruction was done with bricks after that. The city council also appointed a city fire inspector, required stone or concrete sidewalks, and the fire department no longer sprinkled streets. The water system was improved, and one central fire station was built and outfitted with new fire fighting equipment.

Minutes from subsequent council meetings show that the city safe was still intact, and that on August 7th, S. S. Graham was paid $12 to force it open. The records and council minutes inside were charred and damaged, but someone was hired to transcribe them.

Four and a half months after the fire, John Mosher filed a claim with the city for $280 for fire-wagon horses that were destroyed, and on December 4th, 1893, the Rescue Hook and Ladder Company also submitted a bill for funeral expenses for fireman W. H. Johnson, who died of injuries. He was reportedly the only fatality of the fire.

Fargo immediately began to rebuild, and within a year, 246 new buildings were erected.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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