The Fire of 1898 was the most devastating fire seen in Bismarck, wiping out a large portion of the city, including most of its downtown. The total loss was estimated at nearly half a million dollars (in 1898 figures). The fire forced reconstruction of a large portion of the city, and helped accelerate the city’s push from a frontier town to a modernized major city.
The fire was first reported at about 9:00PM on August 8, when smoke was seen coming from a warehouse for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Winds quickly spread the fire to adjacent buildings and there was no hope to control the fire. To make things worse, gun powder was stored inside the warehouse and other buildings, causing explosions, which further fueled and spread the blaze.
According to a Bismarck Daily Tribune article dated August 10, 1898, an explosion at the warehouse released the flames into adjacent buildings… “Simultaneous with an explosion in the freight warehouse, an immense section of the roof was lifted high into the air, and the flames, which had been checked for a time, leaped forward with renewed vigor and fury.”
In the end, nearly all of Bismarck’s downtown was completely destroyed, in addition to other large portions of the small city. Winds had spread the flames as far north as the capitol grounds.
At the time of the fire, most of the buildings in Bismarck were built of wood. Following the fire, the city implemented new fire codes and most of the buildings constructed moving forward would be built of brick and concrete, and often labeled as “fire proof”.
In addition to damage at the Northern Pacific Railroad properties, some of the structures damaged or destroyed included Mellon Bank, First National Bank, Alexander McKenzie’s residence, Webb residence, Webb Brothers Dry Goods, U.S. Survey General’s Office, Bismarck Daily Tribune building, and Merchant’s Bank.
Another major fire to hit Bismarck’s downtown occurred in 1977, however it did not produced nearly as much devastation as the 1898 fire had.