At the peak of the largest fire in Minneapolis history, trapped firefighters were leaping into the Mississippi River. More than 23 blocks of northeast Minneapolis were burning. Sawdust fill in the roads ignited. A dozen houses erupted at the same instant. And the gale-churned blaze soared 300 feet in the sky.
“The flames shot up toward heaven,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported the next day, Aug. 14, 1893. “Volumes of smoke walled up as from a burning crater … House by house, block by block, the flames advanced … swiftly and surely the greedy monster crept toward the humble cottages of the working men and the more pretentious homes of the better faring people.”
Thousands of spectators packed bridges to gawk at what the newspaper called: “A scene never to be forgotten.”
But like all things, the Minneapolis Conflagration of 1893 has been all but forgotten in what has morphed into a trendy area punctuated with artist studios, chic restaurants and microbreweries.
It had been a hot, dry summer in 1893. No rain had fallen since June. So when winds picked up that Sunday, the sawmills and lumberyards that defined northeast Minneapolis would provide perfect kindling.
Authorities would accuse boys smoking for starting the fire around 1:30 p.m. on the west side of Nicollet Island. A horse stable, icehouse and wagon works quickly went up in flames.
“But while firemen were busy at that point, there was a burst of flame several blocks upriver,” the newspaper reported.
A second inferno had sparked at Boom Island.
“Frantic activity reigned on the island as crews reloaded hose, hitched teams and galloped up Main Street to the Boom Island blaze,” according to the late Minneapolis fire historian, Richard Heath, who wrote a detailed analysis that can be found on the Extra Alarm Association’s website at www.extraalarm.org/conf1893.htm.
Heath described how the flames jumped the channel that has since been filled in but then separated Boom Island at 7th Avenue Northeast — igniting sawmills and millions of feet of lumber stacked in 40-foot-high lumber piles.
By 3 p.m., wooden abutments in the middle of the Mississippi were burning, paint blistered on skiffs ferrying people and possessions across the river, and fire crews were summoned from St. Paul even though there was little hope. As the newspaper said, “Stopping it by any human means was out of the question.”
The Minneapolis Brewing Co.’s castle-like beer plant — then known as German beer maker John Orth’s, but today called the Grain Belt Brewery — was just a two-year-old toddler at the time “but bid defiantly to the fiery onslaught,” the paper said.
“The colossal walls of iron and stone acted in a great measure as a buffer, for the greedy flames hurled themselves madly against the building, ran up their full length and then expired in baffled madness.”
The malt and bottling houses weren’t as lucky, joining more than 150 buildings lost in the fire. Damage estimates topped $1 million — $20 million in today’s dollars. By 7 p.m., things were under control, although the blaze would smolder and flare for a week.
By nightfall, “acres of glowing lumber sent a ruddy glare into the sky.”
Miraculously, only one man died. Thomas Faloon, 70, had a heart attack while joining the hordes loading their furniture and possessions on wagons. Rumors of other deaths circulated and several firefighters and residents were hurt, including 5-year-old Bertie Garrett. She was watching the excitement and fell from a third-floor window at 1019 Washington Av. S. A doctor said her chances of recovering “were extremely doubtful.”
Bohemian immigrants, only a few of whom could speak English, “are left destitute and absolutely homeless, having been literally cleaned out of house, home and clothing,” the paper said.
“In view of the large number of poor who are rendered homeless and penniless by the catastrophe, the charitable minded are already trying to ameliorate their condition.”
But the scene, long forgotten, was clearly heartbreaking. As the newspaper reported the next day:
“Women, with children in their arms, and others clinging helplessly to their skirts, wrung their hands in frantic grief as they saw their homes about to be reduced to piles of smoking ashes.
“Parents anxiously looking for children lost in the crowd,” the paper went on. “Homeless families wandering wistfully about the precincts where their dwelling had been. Despairing faces of those who had lost their all….
“Not a man in the crowd was there who did not feel the keenest pity for the men whose hardships will commence with the fire of the Sabbath afternoon of Aug. 13.”
Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org