© 2021
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Main Street

The Plains Are On Fire

North Dakota has a long and unfortunate history of prairie fires. In 1804 Lewis and Clark recorded a prairie fire that resulted in fatalities. Clark wrote of several people “who could not get to any place of safety.” Lightning sometimes caused wildfires, but they were also caused by human activity. In 1805 the explorers noted that it was common for Indians to burn the prairie near their villages to benefit their ponies and the buffalo. But sometimes these fires got out of control, leaving destruction in their wake. The plains were especially vulnerable to fire in the fall, after the dry weather of summer and before fall rains came.

But not all the fires occurred on the plains. Wooden buildings stood close together in many North Dakota towns, leaving entire blocks vulnerable to a fire. Fargo suffered the worst fire in its history in July 1893. It fire started in the rear of Herzman’s Dry Goods Store and swept through the city. By the time the fire was brought under control about 160 acres were in ashes. 140 homes and 219 businesses were destroyed.

In Bismarck, a large portion of the town was wiped out in 1898 by a fire that originated in the agent’s office of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Losses amounted to almost $800,000 with insurance covering only about $250,000.

A 1907 fire in Willow City destroyed sixteen businesses with a loss of about $115,000. The fire started early in the morning, and by the time it was discovered the wind had blown it into a raging blaze. Firefighters came from Bottineau to help. About half the losses were covered by insurance.

On this date in 1909, the Golden Valley Chronicle announced that the town of Beach would move into a new era with the construction of a modern brick building. The Lovell Brothers had lost their hardware and implement business to fire just a few weeks earlier. They quickly made plans to construct a new two-story building made of brick. It would cost $6,000 and was said to be fireproof. Great stacks of bricks had been delivered to the site. The construction would be complete in thirty days. The businessmen planned to follow that construction with another brick building downtown in the spring.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Golden Valley Chronicle. “To Be Fine Brick Structure.” Beach ND. 1 October 1909. Page 1.

Williston Graphic. “Willow City Swept by Fire.” Williston ND. 20 June 1907. Page 3.

Daily Capitol Journal. “North Dakota Capitol City Visited by Big Fire. Salem, OR. 9 August 1898. Page 4.

Jamestown Weekly. “Bismarck Fire.” Jamestown ND. 11 August 1898. Page 1.

Scranton Tribune. “Bismarck Fire.” Scranton PA. 10 August 1898. Page 8.

National Park Service. “Fire and Aviation Management.” https://www.nps.gov/fire/wildland-fire/learning-center/fireside-chats/history-timeline.cfm  Accessed 21 August 2018.

NDSU Library. “Fire of 1893.” https://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/?q=content/fire-1893  Accessed 21 August 2018.

Related Content