The Great Fargo Fire of 1893 ended with most of the city burned to the ground, but did you know the fire began where this parking ramp now stands on Main Avenue in Fargo?
The Island Park parking ramp stands on the spot where Herzman’s Dry Goods once stood, one of two spots purported to be the origin of the fire. Winds were gusting to 30 miles per hour on June 7th, 1893 — a hot and dry Wednesday. Even today, if you’ve spent any time in Fargo, you know these windy days all too well. Rarely though do we give much thought to the danger that comes with a dry, windy summer day.
Through a quirk of historic bad luck, the fire department across the street was empty because the crew was out sprinkling the dirt streets. Had they been in the station that morning, they would have been perfectly positioned to stop the coming conflagration before it began.
The fire spread northwest, first jumping Front Street (now known as Main Avenue) and proceeding north. It destroyed many of the buildings on the east side of Broadway, then eventually jumped across Broadway and burned all the way to the prairie on the west side of the city. The result was total devastation. 31 blocks of businesses were destroyed and over 350 buildings burned to ruin, including City Hall.
Firefighter W.H. Johnson reportedly died the following day as a result of burns sustained fighting the fire, however his headstone puts his date of death at June 9th, two days after the fire. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery near Hector International Airport. I spent a day shooting some Fargo spots and this was one of the places I had to photograph.
In the end, most of the city was destroyed, resulting in new building standards and a city rebuilt of brick, concrete and steel.
In this photo from 1909, you can see the same city block. The building at the far left, with the white cloth canopy over the sidewalk, is the rebuilt Herzman’s store. Note the brick construction of the entire block. The fire might be the most important single historical event in the life of our city. And today it’s marked only by a parking ramp.
The fire was so long ago that those who lived through it have since passed, and we can no longer listen intently as the old-timers tell their stories.
For some interesting reading on the Great Fargo Fire, visit these links: Ghosts of North Dakota “The Great Fargo Fire of 1893,” John Caron’s “Fire of 1893,” and Fargo History Project’s “Fargo Fire of 1893.”
Troy Larson is the President of Sonic Tremor Media LLC and Founder of GhostsofNorthDakota.com
All photos copyright Sonic Tremor Media LLC