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As thousands watched, North Dakota's Capitol burned

Posted 12/28/23 (Thu)

By Dave Seifert, Prairie Public

Early in the morning of Dec. 28, 1930, the state capitol building in Bismarck burned down. Pieces of North Dakota’s political and architectural history however, did manage to survive the flames.

In August 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad deeded two, 160-acre tracts of land to the Territory of North Dakota. In the “Capital Park Addition” of this area, the first capitol was built; a full five years before North Dakota was granted statehood.

The plan for funding the structure was to sell off some of the 1,000 lots in the new sub-divided Capital Park area. The money was slow in coming, but eventually enough was raised to begin construction.

The result was a new capitol building with an architectural mixture of Romanesque and Classical Revival. It was located on the north end of town, surrounded by the wide-open North Dakota prairie. For some, the building appeared out of place. Because of a lack of money, the grounds were not landscaped and the roads around the site were left ungraded.

Then came Sunday, December 28, 1930…

The fire started in a room where the custodians were in the process of refinishing desks; just days before the start of the next legislative session. Before long, the entire structure was in flames. Thousands of area residents appeared on the scene that morning and watched helplessly as the fire grew in intensity.

At the time, the Bismarck Fire Department consisted of just three men. With the help of citizen volunteers, they were fortunately able to wet-down the nearby Liberty Memorial Building well enough to save it from the flames. The capitol building however, was well beyond hope of saving.

Within just a few weeks, plans were prepared for the construction of a new capitol building. During the demolition of what was left of the old capitol, workmen were able to remove and preserve a piece of early North Dakota history.

On display at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck are the first capitol’s cornerstone and its contents. Other items from the capitol’s history were exhibited in the temporary exhibit “Prairie Phoenix: A New Capitol Rises from the Ashes of the Old.”

Video of fire: