Minneapolis Then And Now: Fire in northeast Minneapolis, near Minneapolis Brewing Company 1893/2012
The biggest fire in Minneapolis history occurred just over 100 years ago, on August 13, 1893. It burned 23 square blocks of the city, more than 150 buildings, and acres of stacked lumber. Although not as costly as the 1982 Norwest Bank fire, nor as tragic as the 1940 Marlborough Hotel fire, it remains the largest conflagration the MFD ever faced. Curiously, it is not well remembered.. No monuments mark its boundaries; it is seldom recalled when large fires of the past are cited. Only the old Grain Belt brewery remains among the buildings that survived the fire.
It broke out on a hot, windy, Sunday afternoon in a dry summer that had seen no rain fall for a month before the blaze. Boys smoking set fire to the two-story, frame plant of the Lenhart Wagon Works on the west side of Nicollet Island, south of present East Hennepin Avenue.
The conflagration of 1893 destroyed 23 square blocks containing four factories, five saw mills, a planing mill, a brewery bottling house, malt house, and stables, four ice houses, two stables, a workers’ dormitory, 103 houses, more than 50 dry kilns, sheds, barns, and outbuildings, 50 million feet of stacked lumber, and several blocks of wood and slab yards. Its $975,582 loss, for more than 50 years the highest on record in the city, would be perhaps 20 times that figure in modern dollars. No fire since has come close to burning as large an area of the city as did the conflagration of 1893. No fire in the department’s 135-year history came closer to overwhelming the city’s fire defenses.
Companies remained or returned to the scene for a week to fight fires and rekindles in lumber and sawdust piles, trees, and rubble. About 200 residents burned out of their homes sheltered in churches and lodge halls. For months after the blaze, the devastated district remained bare land save for the ruins of a few masonry buildings. It was never rebuilt as a saw milling center: west side saw mills had sufficient excess capacity for future lumber production. The Soo Line railroad soon bought the northeast district for railroad yards, but these also remained unbuilt. Eventually, smaller lumber yards, a planing mill, and a woodenware plant occupied the area. It is now the site of the Graco Corporation’s headquarters and Scherer Brothers Lumber Company. Boom Island and the tip of Nicollet Island where the conflagration started are now handsome riverfront parks.