Fire and Ice: Bismarck firefighters battle blaze day after Christmas, 1916

Published: Dec. 28, 2022 at 7:53 PM CST
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - Today we have down-filled jackets, heated gloves and socks, and many other accessories to help us cope with cold weather. 100 years ago, they didn’t have the technology to brave the elements.

One hundred years ago, fire departments worked differently than they do now. On Christmas Day, 1916, a blizzard dropped 11 inches of snow in Bismarck and strong winds made things worse. The next day, a fire started near Main and 7th Streets and burned for 10 hours, damaging three structures. Fires like this were common in towns back then, because of the way they were built.

”The town, as it was being built, maybe the buildings were close together. We sometimes see that in older areas. Flames could really easily go to the next portion, the next building,” said Sarah Walker, head of reference services at the North Dakota State Archives.

As the fire brigade worked to put out the flames, the wind blew the water around, and it froze onto them.

”So, they kind of became like human icicles,” said Walker.

Firefighters back in the early 1900s also didn’t have the advantage of protective clothing firefighters use today.

”Back in the early 1900s you would see probably just a leather coat that firefighters would wear, and typically they would wear like a hip boot. So, obviously, you wouldn’t have a lot of that thermal protection that we have now,” said Deputy Chief Brooks Martin of the Bismarck Fire Department.

As the firefighters fought the flames, the water froze almost immediately to the structures, creating walls of ice that eventually stopped the fire from spreading further. In the following days, the firefighters were recognized in the paper in a letter by a resident, thanking them for working in the brutal conditions.

The fire caused an estimated $50,000 in damages. Today, that would equal more than $1.3 million.