Conditions in Minneapolis in 1893 were rife for disaster. The city saw a long stretch of dry weather in a district home to several lumber milling and storage companies. The combination was a potential powder keg ready to explode. On a warm Sunday afternoon, it did.
In August of that year, the city suffered through over a month of warm, dry, and windy weather. It hadn't rained in the area since June. Shortly before 1:30 PM on August 13, 1893, a thin veil of smoke rose from a building on Nicollet Island. The fire that soon sprung up became part of one of the worst disasters in city history.
At 1:38 PM, a call from a city firebox alerted the local fire station to a growing fire on the island's lower end. It originated from a stable located behind the Cedar Lake Ice House or the Frank Lenhart Wagon Factory. A strong wind propelled the flames, and the fire soon covered a large part of the island's lower section.
Local departments eventually controlled the blaze.
However, it was far from over. A second fire soon burned at nearby Boom Island. More than likely, hot embers that rose from the Nicollet Island flames were carried up river by the wind. Some landed on nearby Boom Island in the lumber yard of Backus & Co., igniting large piles of stacked lumber and sending a dense black smoke billowing into the air.
After a short while, flames jumped the channel between the island and the river's eastern bank.
The runaway fire made its way toward the collection of working-class homes scattered near the river, quickly destroying them in its wake. The blaze was soon several blocks deep in every direction. Massive flames headed north. The district's sawmills and millions of feet of stacked lumber in its path helped feed the fire as it traveled.
A large section of northeast Minneapolis was now engulfed in flames. People rushed around, evacuating from the chaos with family heirlooms and whatever else they could carry. The unbearable heat from the fire forced many to seek refuge in the river.
Hours into battle, with no end in sight, fire officials lost hope. They believed they couldn't stop the blaze from overtaking the brewery and leaving northeast Minneapolis in ruin.
At 5:00 PM, the fire crossed Broadway Ave. and headed toward the Minneapolis Brewing Company complex. Among the brewery buildings in its path of destruction were a malt house, three bottling houses, and a stable. The horses were removed before the blaze arrived and were unharmed. Many of the structures that weren't outright destroyed sustained significant damaged. Losses totaled $117,000, however, the affected properties were all fully insured.
The greedy flames made their way toward the brewery's main plant, a stone and iron multi-story building built near the former home of the John Orth Brewing Company. Constructed to be fireproof, brewery officials neglected to buy fire insurance for the centerpiece of their brewing complex. Thankfully—at least on that day—it wasn't needed. Flames attacked, running up its side, but couldn't befall the grand structure.
Inexplicably, the wind turned and the fire reversed course. Deprived of fuel, it soon subsided. Not only had the brewery beaten back the destructive blaze, but it acted as a buffer to keep the district's remaining homes and buildings safe. The main plant was the only building between the river and Marshall Street to escape the ravages of the fire.
By 7:00 PM officials deemed the blaze under control. They announced the all-clear at 11:41 PM, though ashes smoldered and flared off and on for another week.
When finished, the fire had ruined the equivalent of twenty-three city blocks. It destroyed over one hundred and fifty buildings, one hundred homes, six sawmills, four factories, four ice houses, two stables, and more than fifty million feet of lumber. Hundreds of families were left homeless.
Many of those impacted lacked enough insurance to see their lives return to normal after the devastation ended. Local newspapers reported over a million dollars in damages but only seven-hundred-and-fifty thousand worth of insurance coverage. Families were left destitute.
Fire officials investigated the cause of the blaze in its aftermath. Arson was suspected, but the charge was never proved.
- Brown, Curt. "'A scene never to be forgotten'." Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 11, 2015, B4.
- "FIRES AND FIREFIGHTING." St Louis Park Historical Society. https://slphistory.org/fire/.
- Lileks, James. "Minnesota Moment: Grain Belt Stopped Northeast Fire of 1893." AP NEWS. Last modified August 10, 2018. https://apnews.com/article/0b32d25ee05d4d57b622a2ce22882490.
- The Minneapolis Tribune. "Fire Bugs at Work." August 14, 1893, 1. https://www.mnhs.org/newspapers/lccn/sn83016771/1893-08-14/ed-1/seq-1.
- Minneapolis. Annual Reports of the Various City Officers of the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota. 1894.
- Saint Paul Daily Globe. "A Column of Destruction." August 14, 1893, 1. https://www.mnhs.org/newspapers/lccn/sn90059522/1893-08-14/ed-1/seq-3.
- Sowden, Cynthia. "The Fire That Almost Destroyed Northeast – MyNortheaster.com." MyNortheaster.com – News, Events, Northeast Minneapolis, St. Anthony, Columbia Heights, Hilltop. Last modified May 17, 2019. https://www.mynortheaster.com/news/the-fire-that-almost-destroyed-northeast/.
- Wick, Sherman, and Holly Day. A History Lover's Guide to Minneapolis. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2019.