Sunday, August 13, 1893 was pretty much like the preceding 30 days in Northeast Minneapolis, hot, dry and windy. Lawns were brown and prickly under bare feet. The cobblestone streets were dusty. The sun beat down mercilessly. At the lumberyards along the river, newly sawed boards were stacked three to four stories high, awaiting shipment downriver. Little did residents know a disaster was brewing.
The Great Minneapolis Fire of 1893 began on the south end of Nicollet Island in the Lenhart Wagon Factory. The building was soon fully engulfed and spread quickly to the Cedar Lake Ice House and stable next door. An alarm was called in at 1:38 p.m.
Firefighting communication in the 1890s was primitive. There was no 911, no central dispatch, no GPS. To report a fire, you pulled a lever on the nearest firebox and the message was telegraphed downtown. It reported the location of the firebox. When firefighters reached the firebox (this time, the corner of Central (now East Hennepin) and East Island Avenue), they looked for the smoke to locate the fire.
The Minneapolis Fire Department was run by Chief “Gus” Runge, who had only recently been acquitted of “sanctioning and participating in thefts at fires, permitting drinking in the fire stations, showing favoritism and improper handling of Fire Department Relief Association funds.” Runge took charge of the fire suppression efforts.
When the MFD came clattering up the cobblestones with its horse-drawn steam engines and human-powered hose carts, it was already out-gunned by the fire. Firefighters tried to get to buildings south of the fire but were cut off by flames urged on by a stiff southeast wind. The Clark Box factory soon caught fire and then the boiler factory next door. Intense heat pushed firefighters back to the Island Power Building (razed in 1937). Those not involved on the front lines of the fire dashed about putting out small fires caused by wind-blown firebrands.
They had the fire well under control when another fire alarm came in from the firebox at Main Street and 4th Street NE. Runge sent two engines to respond. Minutes later, a messenger from Engine 16 reported seeing flames as he crossed the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. Boom Island was on fire.
Boom Island truly was an island then, separated from the river bank and Nicollet Island by narrow channels. Firebrands from Nicollet Island had blown across the channel and ignited the E.W. Backus and Company lumberyard.
Backus had an oversupply of lumber. The economic depression known as the Panic of 1893 had just started. Demand for lumber was down, and shipments from sawmills had slowed. Lumber was stacked all over the 22-acre island; some piles were 40 feet high. They went up like, well, matchsticks.
Unlike Nicollet Island, which had fire hydrants, Boom Island had none. It had no firebreaks, either. Fire companies that responded to the blaze let it burn and began setting up a defense on the riverbank just yards away. One company concentrated on cooling the Backus sawmill on 8th Street NE.
Driven by the wind and its own updrafts, the fire jumped to the Wilcox Planing Mill at Ramsey Street and 11th Avenue NE. Crews responded, leaving only a handful of firefighters to keep an eye on Boom Island.
The steam engines, which could pump 750 gallons of water per minute, were no match for the devouring fire.
When the fire crossed onto the mainland at 7th Avenue NE, it set lumberyards, mills and houses ablaze. German and Bohemian mill hands and their families fled toward the river on 11th Street, only to become trapped by the fire. Police and crews from river boats carried them to safety in small boats or on logs floating in the river.
Chief Runge called for help from St. Paul as Engine 14 was trapped by blasts of fire on 8th Avenue. Part of the company made a mad dash to safety through a wall of flame; the others dove into the river. Chemical Company 8 and its horses barely made it out alive; men and equines were severely scorched.
As the fire continued to lick its way northward, the fire department began to lay out a defense along Marshall Street. Crowds of people gathered to watch the fire, which seemed to take on a life of its own. A firestorm grew, throwing up a thermal column of flame 300 feet high, said to be visible 88 miles away.
The fire crossed Marshall and set fire to a block of houses between 9th and 10th avenues, but crews were able to stamp it out.
The St. Paul Fire Department’s Engines 1 and 4 arrived about 4:30 p.m. A half-hour earlier, sparks had flown across the river and ignited mills on the North Side. St. Paul 1 crossed the river to help mill hands put the fires out.
Meanwhile, on Main Street and 1st Avenue NE, a livery stable caught fire, and some of the Marshall Street crews had to dash over and save it. The building was moved in the 1980s and is now known as the Brown & Ryan Building, part of the Riverplace complex.
By 5 p.m., the fire approached the Minneapolis Brewing Company (Grain Belt) on Broadway and Marshall. The brewery’s stable burned to the ground, though the horses were led to safety. The malt house and three bottling houses were destroyed. A pitch yard where barrels were lined with resin was gone. But the two-year-old stone brewery itself withstood the flames. “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,” reported the Minneapolis Tribune.
Deprived of fuel, the fire began to subside. By 7 p.m., it was declared under control, although the embers continued to glow all night.
The next day, people began adding up the damages. The mile-wide fire destroyed 23 blocks of Northeast. More than 150 buildings were demolished. An estimated 1,500-2,000 people were left homeless. The New York Times reported that “an unknown child was burned to death and Thomas Faloon lost his life from heart failure due to excitement.” Minneapolis Tribune reports said the child was 5-year-old Bertie Garrett, who was watching the fire from a third-floor window and fell out.
The Times story added up the losses to just over $1 million ($20 million in today’s money). More than 40 million board feet of lumber and 10 million feet of lath and wooden shingles were burned. Most of the business were under-insured. An investigation was conducted, but arson was never completely ruled out. The question has lingered for more than 100 years.
Editor’s note: Thanks to the volunteers at the Firefighters Hall & Museum, 664 22nd Ave NE, who provided information and institutional knowledge for this article, and for letting us use their copy of Mill City Firefighters: The First Hundred Years 1879-1979, by Richard Heath, The Extra Alarm Association of the Twin cities, 1981.
Below: The fire could be seen across the river in North Minneapolis. Where the fire began. East Hennepin Avenue was called Central Avenue in 1893.Chief Gus Runge. (Provided photos). In 1893, fires were reported via a callbox like this one. They reported the location of the callbox, not the fire. The last ones were taken down in the 1960s. Below, a hose cart. Both relics are at the Firefighters Hall & Museum. (Photos by Cynthia Sowden)