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Industry, Fire, and Rebirth (1884-1929)

By | Last Modified: December 2, 2017
Lucas & O'hara Store - 1899
Lucas & O’hara Store – 1899

As capital, Bismarck was now better positioned to become the hub its founders predicted. With it came an explosion of commerce and industry.

Webb Brothers opened as a furniture store in 1884, but would eventually expand its merchandise offerings. For years, it was the only dry goods store in Bismarck and the only furniture store in the region. North Ward School also opened that year, with 364 students, replacing the original 2-room schoolhouse. The first graduating class consisted of just two students in 1887.

The first hospital in Dakota Territory, Saint Alexius, opened in 1885, in addition to the Territorial Prison, now known as the State Penitentiary. Bismarck now had everything necessary to support a thriving city.

Upon entering statehood in 1889, Dakota Territory was divided and Bismarck assumed the role as capital of North Dakota.

1898 Fire

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

Even though Bismarck had grown substantially, it was fundamentally still a frontier town. Most of the buildings to this point had been constructed of wood, which provided endless fuel to a fire that devastated Bismarck in August 1898. 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).

Following the fire, a large portion of Bismarck had to be rebuilt. Stricter fire codes were enacted, and rising from the ashes were buildings not made from wood, but from brick and concrete. In response, many of these new buildings were labeled as “fire proof.”

The Fire of 1898 helped push Bismarck away from its frontier roots and into a modern city.

Phoenix: Bismarck’s Rebirth

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”.

Former Northern Pacific Train Depot, completed in 1901

The Northern Pacific Railroad Depot itself had to be rebuilt, and forced the relocation of Edward Patterson’s Sheridan House Hotel, which was then renamed the Northwest Hotel.

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 (now Sanford), 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 (AKA Sertoma Park).

L.J. Anderson Building / Former International Harvester Company Warehouse

The Former International Harvester Company Warehouse was completed in 1910.

The International Harvester Company built a warehouse in Bismarck in 1910 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.

Patterson and The Nonpartisan League

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.

Former Patterson Hotel / McKenzie Hotel

The Patterson/McKenzie Hotel opened New Year’s Day, 1911.

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.

For years, the McKenzie Hotel was known as the unofficial political headquarters of North Dakota, a hotbed for politicians and businessman alike. Its namesake, Alexander McKenzie, owner, Edward Patterson, themselves were heavy influences in local politics. Upon the destruction of the Northwest Hotel in 1921, another property owned by Patterson, the McKenzie became the headquarters of the Nonpartisan League (NPL).

Established in 1915, the Nonpartsan League quickly elevated into the state’s dominating political force, ushering in a new progressive movement for the state that opposed the previously commanding big-business centered McKenzie Machine. Just one year after formation, in 1916, NPL-member Lynn Frazier was elected Governor with 79% of the vote. The NPL also won control of both houses after the 1918 election.

It was during this reign that North Dakota implemented the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and North Dakota Mill & Elevator, both of which remain today. The NPL’s dominance came to a temporary end, when in 1921, Governor Frazier was recalled from his position. The NPL wouldn’t regain supremacy until 1932, when their most infamous member, William “Wild Bill” Langer was elected Governor.


Belle Mehus Auditorium

The Belle Mehus City Auditorium opened in 1914.

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.

Former Prince Hotel / Van Horn Hotel

The Prince/Van Horn Hotel opened in 1916.

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 Liberty Memorial Bridge was the first vehicular bridge in the region to cross the Missouri River when it was dedicated in 1922. The bridge was replaced in 2008. Photo courtesy North Dakota Historical Society.

The Liberty Memorial Bridge was dedicated in September 1922. Photo courtesy North Dakota Historical Society.

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.

Long-time local retailer, Hoskins-Meyer, began test broadcasts for the city’s first radio station in 1925, founding KFYR Radio.

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 McCracken’s local Golden Rule store, which was a retail syndicate once affiliated with Penney. J.C. Penney had previous established a store in Mandan in 1921, and maintained both locations well into the 1930s.

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1930-1944: Great Depression And The War

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1880-1883: Capital: Yankton to Bismarck

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