Historic Minneapolis Fires - 1893

by Richard Heath

The Minneapolis Conflagration of 1893



(Note: This article originally appeared in "The Extra Alarmer")

1893 - Part 1

Extremely rapid growth of Minneapolis in the 1880s and early 1890s created fire hazards that ultimately outstripped the fire department's capacities. In 1893, at the same time the MFD was wracked by political turmoil, the city's critical fire protection problems became glaringly evident. Total loss rose to a million and a half dollars. Total alarms increased by over 100. Extra alarm fires more than doubled with eighteen second alarms, 21 third alarms, and one general alarm, the last an uncontrollable conflagration that remains the largest fire in the city's history.

The first in this awesome list of major fires (so long that it will receive abbreviated treatment in this series) occurred on January 19, 1893. It broke out at 1:30 AM in a "confectionery store" (front for a house of ill fame) in a ramshackle row of two-story frame buildings at 23 to 27 Nicollet Avenue. Flames spread rapidly into a lodging house on its second floor, then to similar buildings on each side. Firefighters struck a 2-11 and stopped fire spread before it could damage the larger Paully Hotel adjacent to the burning row, but all the involved buildings burned to the ground. One civilian received serious injuries. The next night, a 2-11 again rang in for a fire in the four-story, stone North Star Woolen Mill at 125 South 6th Street. No fire in the milling district could be taken lightly, but firemen knocked down this one so quickly that details are sparse.

A 7:30 PM alarm on February 21, 1893, brought firemen to 118-120 East 26th Street, where flames had a good start in the basement. The three-story brick building had stores on its first floor, a medical infirmary above. A quick knockdown by a 2-11 assignment saved the building, which still stands. The next month, on March 10, a far hotter blaze at 418-420 South 3rd Street was through the roof when firemen arrived on a 6:07 AM alarm. The third and fourth floors of the four-story, brick Paule Showcase factory were already a mass of flames. A 3-11 brought crews to set up heavy streams and cover exposures. They contained the blaze in half an hour, but by the time it went under control at 9:30, the building's rear wall and roof had collapsed. It would be rebuilt to burn even more seriously ten years later.

On March 15, 1893, a 6:47 PM blaze in a three-story, brick structure at 247-249 Hennepin Avenue swept through the Kimball print shop on the upper two floors, then spread to first-floor stores as upper floors collapsed. Firefighters struck a 3-11, evacuated adjacent rooming houses, and set up some 20 streams as flames spouted from windows and the roof. Collapse of the rear wall caught several crews working on a rear fire escape. FF John Osborne of Engine 8 and FFs John Baker and Ben Stewart of Ladder 2 suffered severe injuries, while crews of Engines 1 and 11 escaped only by hugging the wall below the collapse. Two hour's hard work in 12-degree weather was needed to control the blaze. On March 23, crews responding to an afternoon alarm from 14th Avenue South and 5th Street found flames spreading from a dry kiln to the 1-story, 110 by 165-foot workshop of the Hennepin Cooperative Barrel Company plant. Very heavy smoke followed by hot flames prompted a 2-11 response that saved the rest of the block-square plant, scene of many fires over the years until it burned down completely in 1933.

On April 5, 1893, an alarm at 11:25 PM brought north side companies to the Lowell School at Logan and Hillside Avenue North. The three-story, brick 12-room schoolhouse had flames pouring from its first floor windows and soon was a furnace from basement to roof. A 3-11 response could do little to halt the fire other than protect houses nearby from showers of sparks. Five steamers rapidly exhausted hydrants in the area, which were fed by a single eight-inch main. The building burned to a shell. Later that month, on April 21, fire broke out at 1:38 AM in J.A. Shay's commission house at 14-18 Hennepin Avenue. Arriving companies found the first two floors of the four-story brick fruit warehouse completely involved. They struck a 2-11 plus a special call, but response was severely slowed by heavy, wet snow from a freak April blizzard. High winds and low nozzle pressures from snow-clogged steamers hampered firefighters as the warehouse burned like a volcano, scattering sparks over a wide area of the furious wind gusts. Sparks set fire to the roof of the adjacent Jewell Hotel at 20 Hennepin, but hard work brought the blaze under control in an hour.

For the first time in 1893, May brought a month's respite from major fires. On June 6, however, at 6:17 PM flames burst from the top floor of the six-story, stone Bradstreet and Thurber furniture store at 513-515 Nicollet Avenue. Arriving crews struck a 1-11 and specials, set up the water tower on Nicollet, and took lines to the fire floor up aerial ladders and rear fire escapes. Hard and dangerous work prying open iron window shutters at the rear of the building allowed attack by additional streams from the alley and roofs of the New England furniture store and Grand Opera House, while crews inside knocked out flames dropping down the elevator shaft. Firefighters opening up the roof narrowly escaped when it collapsed, spreading flames to the fifth floor. The blaze went under control at 8:30. Both fire and water caused a high loss, but good firefighting held damage to the furniture store in the block-long Syndicate Building.

A politically inspired investigation into the fire department was in full swing on June 25, 1893, when a 12:20 PM alarm brought companies to the foot of Fremont Avenue North at Spring Lake. Flames starting in the two-story, frame Bidwell rendering plant had already been whipped by high winds into a one-story frame stone-cutting firm, the two-story brick and frame Bassett planing mill, and a two-story brick-veneer plow factory. Firefighters at once struck a 3-11. Engines 6, 10, 16, and 8 drove out on a platform next to the planing mill at the edge of Spring Lake and started drafting, but flames spread so fast the first three engines had to drop their lines and pull out without taking time to disconnect. Drivers and horses were badly singed, Engine 10's captain was overcome by heat, and 16's driver suffered a head cut from a flying coupling. Nine steamers relocated on the other side of the lake got 18 streams in action to fight flame spread through the large Bassett lumber yards. Showers of sparks set fire to barns and houses at 1106 and 1124 Mount Curve on Lowry Hill above the main fire. Assistant Chief Canterbury sent rigs from the fire up the hill with double teams (four horses on hose wagons, eight on steamers) and special-called all rigs in the city but one engine to the scene. Six steamers controlled the Lowry Hill outbreak. The main blaze went under control about 2:30 after the involved factories and a million feet of lumber had burned.

1893 - Part 2

The biggest fire in Minneapolis history occurred just over 100 years ago, on August 13, 1893. It burned 23 square blocks of the city, more than 150 buildings, and acres of stacked lumber. Although not as costly as the 1982 Norwest Bank fire, nor as tragic as the 1940 Marlborough Hotel fire, it remains the largest conflagration the MFD ever faced. Curiously, it is not well remembered.. No monuments mark its boundaries; it is seldom recalled when large fires of the past are cited. Only the old Grain Belt brewery remains among the buildings that survived the fire.

The blaze is thoroughly described in Mill City Firefighters, and recounted in less detail in an installment of "Flashbacks" in the most recent issue of the Deluge. For this installment of "Historic Minneapolis Fires", I thought it might be of interest to trace in more detail than those accounts the way MFD firefighters fought the blaze. It broke out on a hot, windy, Sunday afternoon in a dry summer that had seen no rain fall for a month before the blaze. Boys smoking set fire to the two-story, frame plant of the Lenhart Wagon Works on the west side of Nicollet Island, south of present East Hennepin Avenue. The first alarm from Box 132 at 1:35 PM drew Engines 11-3-2-12, Ladder 2-1, Chemical 3, 1st Assistant Chief and Chief of Department.

They found the Lenhart plant fully involved, with flames spreading to the Cedar Lake Ice House and stable to its north and threatening the Clark Box Factory a few feet to the south. They struck a 1-11 at 1:38 PM, bringing Engines 1-4-9-6-15, Ladder 4, Chemical 1-6, and the 2nd Assistant Chief. A 2-11 at 1:41 brought Engines 10-5-14 and Ladder 3. Crews on the first lines stretched to cover the box factory were severly scorched by gusts of flame in the narrow passage between the buildings. The Clark, factory, a large, two- and three-story frame building, was soon heavily involved. As flames spread further to another ice house to the north and a two-story brick boiler factory to the east of the Clark plant, firefighters fell back to a defensive line covering buildings on the south side of East Hennepin and the block-long, four-story Power Building on the east side of the island.

Seven steamers operated from the four hydrants on Nicollet Island, supplying lines for additional engines, while chemical rigs patrolled the north end of the island quelling spark fires. A strong southeast wind, however, carried brands far north of the island. At 2:16 PM, Box 146 rang in from 4th Avenue NE and Main Street. Only Engine 18 (32nd Avenue N and 3rd Street) and Chemical 4 (21st Avenue N and 4th Street) remained on the north side to respond. Chief Runge special called Engine 16-17 to Nicollet Island and detached Engine 14-10 and Assistant Chief Kenney from the island to respond to Box 146. At 2:23 PM, Chief Kenney struck a 3-11 on Box 146.

Engine 16 soon arrived at Nicollet Island to inform Runge of the disaster in progress. As it crossed the Hennepin Avenue bridge to the island, its crew could see a huge blaze in progress on Boom Island to the north. Boom Island, about five blocks in area, was completely covered with lumber yards of the Backus Lumber Company. Chief Runge at once struck a 22-22 (general) alarm from Box 132, bringing Engines 7-8-13, Ladder 5, and Chemicals 2-5-7-8. He sent the companies on their arrival to the new outbreak, and ordered as many rigs and crews as could be released from Nicollet Island to the Boom Island blaze. Frantic activity reigned on the island as crews reloaded hose, hitched teams, and galloped up Main Street toward a huge loom of smoke and flame. Eventually, only Engines 11 and 1 were left to watch the blazing ruins on Nicollet Island.

Chief Kenney wisely made no attempt to stop flames roaring through the 40-foot-high piles of lumber on Boom Island, which had neither fire breaks nor fire hydrants. The first companies to arrive at Box 146 deployed on the bank above the narrow channel (now filled in) separating Boom Island from the east side lumber district. Engine 14 got a line to work cooling the big Backus sawmill at 8th Avenue NE. Then word came of a new outbreak in the Wilcox Planing Mill at 11th Avenue NE and Ramsey Street. Diversion of incoming companies to this blaze left the Boom Island defense line fatally weak. Flames jumped the channel from Boom Island at 7th Avenue NE into the blocks of lumber yards, wood and slab yards, lumber mills, and dwellings of the northeast side. About 3:00 PM, Chief Runge sent his secretary to call St. Paul for help.

The blaze now spread so fast that Engine 14 found itself cut off by blasts of flame across 8th Avenue. It had to dash through a wall of fire to escape, covered by streams from other crews, while the men manning its line had to take the river and swim to safety. Other companies had similar narrow escapes. Chemical 8's crew and horses were severely scorched by a sudden gust of fire. The blaze spread in typical conflagration fashion, with a wave of wind-driven heat setting fires in advance of the main flame front. All companies fell back to Marshall Street as the conflagration spread northward at the rate of a brisk walk through five saw mills along the river, over a hundred dwellings, sheds, and dry kilns, and block after block of lumber and wood yards.

Firefighters now concentrated on a defense line on Marshall paralleling the fire's spread, with a barrage of streams supplied by steamers taking successive hydrants on Main Street a block to the east. No attempt was made to head off the fire spread to the north. Even the Marshall Street line was tenuous. As more and more blocks became involved, a fire storm developed with an immense thermal column of flame 300 feet high and gale force winds sweeping toward it. Crews on Marshall faced incredible heat and storms of brands as they fought to keep flames from jumping the street into a residential district. At the height of the fire storm, a block front of houses caught fire on the east side of Marshall between 9th and 10th Avenues, but firefighters redrew their lines and closed the breach. Further north on Marshall, they halted flames at the Grain Belt brewhouse after its stables, bottling houses, and malt house had burned. By 4:30 PM, the east flank of the fire was secure.

1893 - Part 3

The great Nicollet Island-Northeast conflagration of 1893, after destroying five industrial buildings on Nicollet Island, leaped to the Boom Island lumber yards and from there into the Northeast sawmill and lumber yard district. There, as described in the last installment, it swept from 7th Avenue N.E. and the river northward through block after block of sawmills, planing mills, lumber piles, wood and slab yards, dry kilns, sheds, and dwellings. Minneapolis firefighters, repeatedly outflanked and overwhelmed, fell back to Marshall Street N.E., setting up a defense line between 7th and 13th Avenues to keep flames from spreading into a residential district to the east. Despite an enormous fire storm that sent flames 300 feet in the air and generated gale-force winds and storms of brands, firemen secured the east flank of the conflagration by 4:30 PM.

The outcome remained very much in doubt. St. Paul Engines 1 and 4 with 20 men arrived to help at 4 PM; Engine 4 joined the growing line of steamers on Main Street supplying the barrage of streams on Marshall Street, and Engine 1 went to Station "E" downtown to cover other calls. Other calls came in. At 3:59 PM, Box 438 at 24th Avenue N. and 1st St. was struck for one of hundreds of fires started by sparks in the even larger sawmill district across the river. Engine 10 and other rigs sent to it from the Northeast fire had to go back to Nicollet Island to cross the river because flames blocked the Plymouth and Broadway bridges. Most of these spark fires were extinguished by mill hands and volunteers. Other companies had to be detached from the Marshall Street line to extinguish an incediary blaze in a livery stable at 1st Ave. N.E. and Main St. (the stable still stands, now moved to the Riverplace commercial complex).

The main body of fire continued to march north through the east side lumber district. A number of residents of the numerous small houses scattered throughout it were trapped by spreading flames on the river bank at 11th Ave. N.E. Police and rivermen carried them to safety in skiffs or across the logs floating in the river. The blaze caused only one fatality, an elderly resident who died of a heart attack. Radiated heat scorched scores of firefighters, but none suffered serious injury. In the fire district, nothing could live. Heat was so intense it set fire to the sawdust fill on which the streets and lumber piles rested. An abandoned hydrant in the midst of the flames spouted steam.

By 5:00 PM, the main fire front was approaching 13th Ave. N.E. The big Minneapolis Brewery brewhouse at 13th and Marshall St. still withstood the flames, its five-story stone and brick walls drenched by exterior and interior streams. Firefighters now tried to work across the head of the blaze on 13th Ave. The lumber yards ended at that point, giving way to small houses, ice houses, and sheds. The brewery's walls provided shelter from the blast of heat for crews stretching lines across the flame front. Engine 10 and other companies laid lines from across the river on the Broadway bridge (which then led directly onto 13th Ave. N.E.). By 5:30, it appeared that a water curtain of streams on 13th Ave. might halt the blaze.

At 6:00 PM, however, another fire storm effect sent half a dozen whirlwinds of flame hundreds of feet in the air the length of 13th Ave. Gusts of flame made the street untenable, forcing firefighters to drop their lines and flee. The fire storms dropped a blizzard of burning planks and brands on the two-block, triangular-shaped area between 13th and 15th Avenues from Ramsey St. to the river, setting scores of roof fires. Relocated crews and streams built a new defense line on Ramsey St. north from 13th Ave. This one held. By 7 PM, the head of the conflagration had been pinched off against the river. The conflagration of 1893 was under control.

Fifteen steamers now worked from hydrants on Main and Marshall streets from 5th to 15th Ave. N.E. Companies had located and relocated so many times, even their crews could not recall all their operations to enter in the few company records that survive. Hose 8's experience was probably typical of many. After responding to the general alarm, it laid out all its hose, left its crew at the blaze, and made successive trips to Stations 11, 2, and 15 for a new hose load, laying new lines after each trip. It then went to Nicollet Island, picked up a full load of hose no longer needed there, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening travelling around the perimeter of the Northeast fire replacing burned and burst hose lengths. Engine 14 laid 975 feet of hose from its carriage reel and "borrowed 1 section of No 18 that was partially burnt". It returned to quarters at 8 PM to find "all our hose in service 2100 feet Can't tell how much is burnt or busted some at fire yet." The fire department lost a total of more than 5,000 feet of hose to the flames.

Although under control, the blaze continued to burn hotly until after 10 PM. When Chief Runge struck the "fire out" signal at 11:41 PM, the ruined district still smoldered. Companies remained or returned to the scene for a week to fight fires and rekindles in lumber and sawdust piles, trees, and rubble. About 200 residents burned out of their homes sheltered in churches and lodge halls. For months after the blaze, the devastated district remained bare land save for the ruins of a few masonry buildings. It was never rebuilt as a saw milling center: west side saw mills had sufficient excess capacity for future lumber production. The Soo Line railroad soon bought the northeast district for railroad yards, but these also remained unbuilt. Eventually, smaller lumber yards, a planing mill, and a woodenware plant occupied the area. It is now the site of the Graco Corporation's headquarters and Scherer Brothers Lumber Company. Boom Island and the tip of Nicollet Island where the conflagration started are now handsome riverfront parks.

The conflagration of 1893 destroyed 23 square blocks containing four factories, five saw mills, a planing mill, a brewery bottling house, malt house, and stables, four ice houses, two stables, a workers' dormitory, 103 houses, more than 50 dry kilns, sheds, barns, and outbuildings, 50 million feet of stacked lumber, and several blocks of wood and slab yards. Its $975,582 loss, for more than 50 years the highest on record in the city, would be perhaps 20 times that figure in modern dollars. No fire since has come close to burning as large an area of the city as did the conflagration of 1893. No fire in the department's 135-year history came closer to overwhelming the city's fire defenses.

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