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Bismarck History: Dawn of a New Century (1899-1929)
The Fire of 1898 had wiped out a large portion of Bismarck, including most of its downtown. Very few structures survived the destruction, forcing the city to rebuild.
Following the devastation, the city enacted stricter fire codes, and most of the new buildings moving forward were constructed of brick and concrete, even labeled as “fire proof”.
Arthur Lucas and William O’Hara opened a clothing and dry goods store in 1899, becoming the first true competition for Webb Brothers, who actually welcomed the added competition; even providing funding to Lucas and O’Hara’s business venture. Lucas and O’Hara’s partnership didn’t last long, however, with Lucas purchasing full ownership of the company in 1902.
Webb Brothers itself finished construction on its brand new building in 1900, after fire destroyed its original store.
Doctors Quain and Ramstad opened a clinic in 1902, which was later reorganized to become Bismarck Evangelical Hospital, the precursor to Medcenter One, in 1907.
In 1904, a streetcar line was established connecting downtown with the capitol. Construction on the Will School commenced in 1905 and the city’s first municipal park, Custer Park, opened in 1909. Other parks that would soon open would included Northern Pacific’s Depot Park and Riverside Park (now Sertoma Park).
The International Harvester Company built a warehouse in Bismarck in 1905 on the corner of Mandan Street & Main Avenue. The International Harvester Company was a national manufacturing company, specializing in agricultural machinery and construction equipment.
Two brand new hotels opened in 1906. Edward Patterson, who already owned the Northwest Hotel, completed construction on the Soo Hotel, which was the tallest building in the city at the time. 1906 also saw the completion of the Grand Pacific Hotel, which replaced the Pacific Hotel that had operated on the site since July 1880.
By 1910, Bismarck had fully recovered from the devastating fire just twelve years earlier, and the city was quickly establishing itself as a major center for business, healthcare, government, and education. The city had grown to nearly 5,000 people, and was a major stop for passengers traveling on the Northern Pacific Railroad.
The prominent McKenzie Hotel (later renamed Patterson Hotel) opened on New Year’s Day, 1911. Developed by Edward Patterson, and named for his close friend, political boss Alexander McKenzie, The McKenzie was known as the most luxurious hotel between Minneapolis and Seattle. Its initial seven stories, which eventually grow to 10 stories, towered the city as the tallest building until the completion of the current Capitol in 1934.
The McKenzie Hotel was one of the first buildings in North Dakota built with steel reinforced concrete. The hotel often advertised itself as “absolutely fire proof”, largely in response to the Fire of 1898. Upon opening, the hotel had 250 rooms and the most private baths of anywhere in the state.
The McKenzie Hotel became a hotbed for politicians and businessman to gather. Alexander McKenzie was deeply involved in local politics, as was Edward Patterson, who served one term as mayor.
Upon the destruction of the Northwest Hotel, the McKenzie became the headquarters of the Nonpartisan League, a branch of the Republican Party. Just one year after forming, NPL member Lynn Frazier was elected Governor in 1916 with 79% of the vote. The NPL also won control of both houses after the 1918 election.
The NPL’s dominance came to a temporary end, when in 1921, Governor Frazier was recalled from his position. During his tenure, Frazier helped to implement the Bank of North Dakota and North Dakota Mill & Elevator, which both remain today. The NPL wouldn’t make a major come back until 1932, when their most infamous member, William “Wild Bill” Langer was elected Governor.
During Prohibition, the Patterson Hotel secretly served alcohol. The hotel had set up an elaborate alarm system to keep out unwanted guests, including law enforcement officers. The hotel also hosted illegal gambling and was rumored to have housed prostitutes. Rumors also have it that there was an underground tunnel connecting the hotel with the nearby train depot.
The first designated high school building opened in 1912, and the Federal Building was completed the following year. The City Auditorium, now the Belle Mehus, opened in 1914, and Saint Alexius Hospital opened its current facility in 1915.
The ten year-old Grand Pacific Hotel was nearly destroyed by fire in 1915, forcing the hotel to undergo extensive renovation.
The Van Horn Hotel, named for its architect, Arthur Van Horn, was completed in 1916. The Van Horn Hotel was owned by Patterson’s chief rival, Edmond Hughes. When Hughes later renamed the hotel Prince Hotel, Patterson renamed the Soo Hotel “Princess” Hotel in an effort to poke fun at his rival.
The North Ward School, constructed in 1884, was renamed William Moore School in 1918, named for the man who served as Bismarck’s school superintendent from 1895-1908. Moore was instrumental in modernizing Bismarck’s education system, including converting the high school from a 2-year program into a standard 4-year program in 1897.
By 1920, World War I had ended, and America was booming. Bismarck’s population stood at more than 7,000 citizens, and the city continued to see major economic growth. To meet the demands of the growing city, two new schools were constructed, Wachter School in 1918 and Richolt School in 1920. Three years later, another school was completed, Roosevelt School.
Bismarck’s first public library, Carnegie Library, opened in 1918 through funds largely donated by Andrew Carnegie. 1918 also saw the construction of Wachter School, named for school board member Charles Wachter.
The first vehicular bridge in the region to span the Missouri River was completed in 1922. The Liberty Memorial Bridge, named to honor World War I veterans, completed the coast-to-coast link for U.S. Highway 10, which ran straight through downtown Bismarck in tandem with Main Avenue.
1922 saw the passing of one of Bismarck’s most famous, and sometimes infamous figures, Alexander McKenzie.
Nicknamed “the senator picker”, McKenzie’s close connections within the Northern Pacific Railroad allowed him the opportunity to form a powerful political organization penned the “McKenzie Machine” that dominated local politics until about 1908. McKenzie had served as Burleigh County Sheriff for many years, in addition to serving as the Republican National Committeeman.
McKenzie was close friends to local entrepreneur, Edward Patterson, who named his new high-rise luxury hotel after his good friend. Shortly after McKenzie’s death, the hotel was renamed Patterson Hotel.
One of McKenzie’s crowing achievements was his effort to relocate the capital of Dakota Territory from Yankton to Bismarck in 1883.
By this time, the Capitol Building was overflowing. Discussion for a replacement had begun, but in the interim, construction was completed in 1924 on the Liberty Memorial Building, located adjacent to the Capitol. That same year, A.W. Lucas Company completed construction of its new store, adjacent to its original location.
The 1920s also marked a major change in shopping for the region, when national retailers began to flock to the growing city. F.W. Woolworth had already arrived by the start of the decade. Montgomery Wards opened a Bismarck store in 1928, followed the next year by J.C. Penney upon its purchase of local retailer McCracken. J.C. Penney had previous established a store in Mandan in 1921, and maintained both locations well into the 1930s.
Bismarck History Chapter Index: