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The State Capitol Burns


Early in the morning on this date in 1930, the state capitol building in Bismarck burned down. Pieces of North Dakota’s political and architectural history however, did manage to survive the flames.

In August of 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad deeded two, 160 acre tracts of land to the Territory of North Dakota. In the “Capital Park Addition” of this area, the first capitol was built; a full five years before North Dakota was granted statehood. The plan for funding the structure was to sell off some of the 1000 lots in the new sub-divided Capital Park area. The money was slow in coming, but eventually enough was raised to begin construction.

The result was a new capitol building with an architectural mixture of Romanesque and Classical Revival. It was located on the north end of town, surrounded by the wide-open North Dakota prairie. For some, the building appeared out of place. Because of a lack of money, the grounds were not landscaped and the roads around the site were left un-graded.

Then came Sunday, December 28, 1930…

The fire started in a room where the custodians were in the process of refinishing desks; just days before the start of the next legislative session. Before long, the entire structure was in flames. Thousands of area residents appeared on the scene that morning and watched helplessly as the fire grew in intensity.

At the time, the Bismarck Fire Department consisted of just three men. With the help of citizen volunteers, they were fortunately able to wet-down the nearby Liberty Memorial Building well enough to save it from the flames. The capitol building however, was well beyond hope of saving.

Within just a few weeks, plans were prepared for the construction of a new capitol building. During the demolition of what was left of the old capitol, workmen were able to remove and preserve a piece of early North Dakota history.

On display at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck are the first capitol’s cornerstone and its contents. Other items from the capitol’s history were exhibited in the temporary exhibit “Prairie Phoenix: A New Capitol Rises from the Ashes of the Old.”

Written by Dave Seifert


Remele, Larry, Editor, The North Dakota State Capitol: Architecture and History, State Historical Society of North Dakota, North Dakota Heritage Center, Bismarck, ND 58505, 1989.

North Dakota History, Journal of the Great Plains, Volume 68, Number 4, 2001, From the Collections… pg. 45.

Regarding the 1883-1930 Capitol, it has been argued that it did not serve the people well, hence the 1895 and 1905 additions, and thankfully the hand of God intervened and burned the structure in December of 1930. We have the cornerstone and contents in the main gallery of the ND Heritage Center, and other items from the 1883-1930 were exhibited in the temporary exhibit, "Prairie Phoenix: A New Capitol Rises from the Ashes of the Old."