What: Minneapolis suffered the worst fire of its history.


When: Aug. 13, 1893.


The spark: The fire was believed to have started on Nicollet Island. Alarms quickly brought firefighters, who were initially able to control the blaze — only to see it flare up on nearby Boom Island.

Soon, more than 20 fire crews were on the scene, but the force of the blaze was too great. The Minneapolis Tribune said the dense smoke from the fire was “a battlement of darkness from which fiery flames shot out in all directions, glaring red in the sunlight.” The air became “intolerably hot, ” driving back the crowds.

Then, the flames leapt beyond Boom Island, to the houses on the eastern banks of Mississippi River, which were set ablaze.

“It appeared as though all Northeast Minneapolis would be laid low,” the newspaper said.

Hundreds of horse-drawn wagons were dispatched to evacuate residents and carry away household goods before the homes were lost.

“House by house, block by block, the flames advanced, until there was nothing but a full mile of seething flames.”

But then came a mysterious turning point: The fire “sprang from the roof of a dwelling into the luxurious foliage of two towering trees,” and instantly consumed them, the flames leaping a hundred feet in the air.

Now, “with unusual caprice, the fire refused” to advance. It had “eaten its fill.”

The wind pushed it back to terrain it had already conquered.

The first alarm had sounded at 1:30 p.m. The fire marshal gave the “fire out” signal at 11:41 p.m.

Later investigations pointed toward arson as the cause of the blaze, but no arrests were ever made.


What was lost: Twenty blocks in ruins. Two hundred homeless. Forty million feet of lumber were lost, and two people lost their lives. A 70-year old man got his family to safety, but collapsed the next day, and a 5-year-old girl fell out of a window while watching the fire.

It was — and still is — the most expensive fire to ravage the city.

No official plaques mark the event, but the building that helped slow its advance is still standing. Northeast owes it survival to the stone behemoth that is the Grain Belt Brewery.

James Lileks