The Fire of 1898 was Bismarck’s most devastating fire, 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 reduced much of the city to ruble and helped accelerate the city’s push from a frontier town to a modernized major city.
While fires were common in Bismarck’s earliest days, none compared to the devastation of the 1898 fire. In its aftermath, the city implemented stricter fire codes and most of the buildings constructed moving forward were built of brick and concrete, some of which were even labeled as “fire proof.”
The fire was discovered shortly before 9:00 p.m. on August 8th, when smoke was seen coming from a Northern Pacific freight warehouse. The fire quickly spread uncontrolled. Main Avenue was first to be consumed, but then it spread to Broadway and the residential section. The heat was so intense that it melted even stronger brick buildings into “heaps of charred brick,” first by shattering their windows and then engulfing the interior.
Even worse, gun powder that was stored inside the warehouse and other buildings ignited and caused explosions. 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.”
The telegraph office was among the first destroyed, cutting off chances of outside assistance. Even a desperate distress call to neighboring Mandan was never received. Even so, Mandan quickly became aware of the massive inferno lighting to its east and dispatched firemen to assist.
The fire mostly extinguished by midnight. In just three hours, an entire two square blocks of Bismarck was in ruin – most Bismarck’s commercial district. While the most significant damage was downtown, winds carried flames as far north as the Capitol. Some residences located at least six blocks from downtown were also damaged or destroyed.
Among the most notable structured damaged or destroyed by the fire included the Northern Pacific Railroad depot, Mellon Bank, Merchant’s Bank, residences of Alexander McKenzie’s and the Webbs, Webb Brothers Dry Goods, U.S. Post Office, U.S. Survey General’s Office, Bismarck Daily Tribune building, and the massive First National Bank block, which was the highest estimated loss.