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1884-1898: Industry, Statehood, and Fire

By | Last Modified: May 22, 2019
Lucas & O'hara Store - 1899
Lucas & O’hara Store – 1899

The next fifteen years reinvented Bismarck from an isolated frontier town into a dynamic modern city, fueled in large part by a devastating fire at the end of the century that wiped out much of Bismarck’s downtown.

Heading into 1884, enthusiasm reigned over Bismarck’s blossoming future, kindled by the long-awaited opening of the Missouri River bridge and new role as capital of Dakota Territory. Several major undertakings were in development, the most notable of which was a new Capitol building. The following year, Bismarck becomes a major healthcare center with the opening of the first hospital in Dakota Territory.

Capitol opens

The new territorial Capitol was occupied at the end of 1884, just in time for the 1885 legislative assembly. Architect Buffington of Minneapolis designed the building and more than 4,000 people were involved in the Capitol’s construction. Excavation commenced the previous year, on August 17th, and The cornerstone was laid on September 5, 1883. By January 20, 1883, 4,000 bricks made of Joliet stone and terra cotta had been laid – in cement – and iron work was completed.

The Capitol was erected at the center of the 160 acres Bismarck was required to donate for the site. Two stories of it were built during the winter, requiring bricklayers to maintain a sheet iron stove to keep the mortar from freezing. The building was among the first, if not the first, in Dakota Territory to be lit by electricity. It contained more than four miles of steam pipe and five tons of carpet.

Initially, only the Capitol’s core – referred to as the tower – was completed. The tower was 92 feet by 153 feet with three stories plus a 12-foot high basement. The exterior shell of an east and west wing was also finished to give the appearance of a completed building, but these sections were not finished until additional space was later required.

The building later serves as Capitol of North Dakota upon entering statehood before fire consumes it on December 28, 1930.

North Ward School

1884 saw other major developments as well. North Ward School opened that year, with 364 students, on the site that now houses Will-Moore Elementary. At the time, Bismarck was divided into three wards, hence its name in the northern ward. It was the second designated schoolhouse to be built in Bismarck, replacing the original two-room building located at the site now home to the Provident Building.

North Ward housed all grade levels until the completion of the city’s first designated high school building in 1912.

The school was renamed William Moore School in 1918 after former Principal William Moore. Present-day Will-Moore Elementary, which was built on the same site, replaced both William Moore School and the similarly named Will School in 1951. The name “Will-Moore” is a combination of the two schools it replaced.

Webb Brothers

Also that year, the Webb Brothers, William and Philip, came to Bismarck from New Jersey and opened a furniture store at 514 Main Avenue. The Webbs eventually expanded their merchandise selection to include dry goods and carpet. For five years, Webb Borthers was the only dry goods store in Bismarck; and, the only furniture store between Jamestown, North Dakota and Glendive, Montana for twelve years.

Webb Brothers later relocates to 223 Main Avenue, and again to the southwest intersection of Third Street & Main Avenue – the present Zimmerman’s Furniture building, where the store remained until closing in December 1945, when it was replaced by Sears.

1885: First Hospital & Territorial Prison

In 1885, St. Alexius was established inside the Lamborn Hotel building to become the first hospital in Dakota Territory. That same year, the Territorial Prison, now known as the State Penitentiary, was also established.

Across the river in Mandan, the original Morton County Courthouse was completed. The brick building is destroyed by fire in 1941.


In 1886, Alexander McKenzie established the city’s first water system, pumping unfiltered river water through a system of pipes. It remained a privately-owned system until 1923, when residents passed a bond measure to acquire the water department and fund a filtration plant.

That same year, Citizens petitioned to change the name of Meigs Street to Broadway, which is accepted and adopted in March.


1887 opens with a ten-day blizzard the buries the region, at the end of January. While not among the strongest winter storms to hit Bismarck-Mandan, and remains one of the longest. In fact, a January 24th article mentions that only four or five inches of snow were present. By January 31st, a warmup had already melted most of the snow.

First Graduating Class

Bismarck graduated its first graduating class, consisting of just two students, in 1887: Emelia Handson and Jennette Ward, with the commencement being widely attended at The Atheneum. Eight students were listed as seniors that year, but only two apparently graduated. It was fifteen years since Linda Slaughter established the city’s first school.

1889: Statehood

North Dakota was formally admitted to the union as a state on November 2, 1889 when Dakota Territory was split at the 49th parallel. Bismarck assumed the role as capital of North Dakota, a role it held for Dakota Territory since 1883. North Dakota’s journey to statehood was lengthy.

Rumblings of splitting Dakota Territory had been ongoing for over a decade. As early as 1872, United States Senator Ramsey of Minnesota introduced a bill to divide the territory at the 46th parallel. A new territory of Ojibway, in the northern half, would have been formed as a result. Another contending name for the northern half was Pembina.

While the bill passed the U.S. Senate, it faced a resounding defeat in the House of Representatives. Unnecessary cost, low population, and political maneuvering were justifications against the bill.

There was also an effort to admit Dakota Territory, apparently as a whole, into statehood in 1883… the same year that the capital was relocated from Yankton to Bismarck. While statehood was strongly approved by citizens, the U.S. Congress rejected the application due to poor voter turnout.

Hoskins-Meyer Founded

In 1898, R.D. Hoskins founded “Hoskins Cigar, Stationery, and Flower Store” directly across from the railroad depot. Soon after, it relocated to the Tribune Block (now KFYR-TV) at the corner of 4th Street and Broadway Avenue, where it remained for decades and its successor – KFYR-TV – still remains. The first greenhouses were built in 1900.

The retailer was one of the first retailers in the region, if not the first, to offer photofinishing products and services, before ditching its cigar and stationery products to exclusively devote itself as a florist. Philip Meyer, husband to R.D.’s daughter Etta, later partnered in the business. Eventually, Hoskins-Meyer diversified to become one of North Dakota’s largest private companies, owning several businesses that included numerous radio and television stations and the local cable provider.

Hughes Electric

Alexander and son Edmond Hughes establish Hughes Electric in January 1897. The company is instrumental in bringing electric power to the region, and credited with inventing the electric stove. It is sold in 1928 to a company that is ultimately acquired by MDU.

1898 Fire

1898 Fire, Credit: State Historical Society of North Dakota (00272-02)

By 1898, Bismarck had grown substantially, but was fundamentally still a frontier town. Most of the buildings to this point were constructed of wood, which provided endless fuel to a fire that devastated Bismarck on August 8, 1898. It was Bismarck’s first significant fire since March 1877, and on a level never seen since.

The fire quickly spread from one wood structure to the next. In the end, most of the buildings in Bismarck had been impact from the fire, with most of its downtown utterly destroyed. Heavy winds helped to spread the flames as far north as the Capitol. The total loss was estimated at nearly half a million dollars (in 1898 figures).

Saint Mary’s Church

The following month, the current Saint Mary’s Church is completed in September.

More Chapters

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1898-1929: Phoenix: Bismarck’s Rebirth

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1878-1883: Railroad Resumes, Mandan Founded, Bismarck Assumes Capital

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