“The most impressive moment is the realization that no matter how catastrophic something seems, that moment when it's the darkest, to know things will improve,” she says.
The cover of "The Fargo Fire of 1893." Special to The Forum
Teigen, a former deputy editor at The Forum and current content manager for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum, spoke with a reporter from her home in Turton, S.D., as she watched the first snowfall of the year, a year that also saw a lingering pandemic and growing political and social discord across America.
As bleak as we may think things are now, that pales in comparison to the dreary outlook Fargo citizens had as nightfall set in on June 7, 1893. A third of the city’s population of 6,000 were left homeless by the fire, with many setting up makeshift camps in Island Park.
“They must have felt they were done for,” she says.
Teigen sets the tone, explaining how dry conditions and a series of unrelated events combined to feed an inferno that devoured much of the city.
The recently published book is available to purchase at Zandbroz Variety in downtown Fargo.
“I remember reading different accounts and thinking, ‘If I were there at that time, what would it have looked like leading up to the fire?’” she says.
Author Danielle Teigen. Special to The Forum
She dug through newspaper articles, historical collections and even a recorded first-person account from that day to bring the 127-year-old disaster to life.
Writings by the late Palmer Forness, a Fargo firefighter who was born after the event, but recorded the history of firefighting in the community, was of particular use in describing what was called at the time "The Great Conflagration."
That may have been the verbiage of the day, but Teigen was particularly struck by how firefighters were referred to as "fireboys" then and later, even by Forness.
“I thought that was hilarious,” she says. “They held these men in such esteem for saving the city, but they called them ‘boys.’”
She was also taken aback by reports of an “electrical storm” the night of the fire. She consulted WDAY StormTracker meteorologist John Wheeler and after looking up records to see that it rained a little bit that night, concluded it was nothing more than a little lightning.
Ruins of the Fargo fire June 7, 1893. O.A. Flaten photo
Teigen says some of the best documentation of the day was made by Moorhead photographer O.E. Flaten, who recorded and preserved dozens of images during and after the disaster.
“Thank goodness for O.E. Flaten for grabbing his camera and running over from Moorhead,” she says.
The book doesn’t just bring the fire to life, but also some of the key figures of the day, from Flaten to the Herzman family, who ran a dry goods store behind which the fire originated.
“My intention was always to know more about the Herzmans,” Teigen says. “Who they were, where they came from and what happened to them. I was expecting the Herzmans to be run out of town, but they were still around for years.”
She retraced the family history to find fascinating characters and storylines.
“It was a rabbit hole, but it was amazing,” she says about diving into the research. “It seems kind of endless, but I’m a giant nerd, obviously.”
Ruins of the Fargo fire, June 7, 1893. Loss of more than $3 million. O.A. Flaten photo
Equally as fascinating for her was seeing what changed and what didn’t as the community rebuilt.
“The fire gave them an opportunity to think about what needed to be done to be a better city,” she says.
Fargo leaders would ban wood sidewalks and make ordinances for stronger buildings and improve a water pumping system. But they also declined to upgrade the alarm system that failed the community the day of the fire.
“I was shocked that those fire alarm boxes were in place until 1965. I would have thought they would have a more sophisticated alarm system in place,” she says.
While no one perished in the fire, it took a toll on an emerging community. As Fargo continues to grow, Teigen sees the lessons learned then are worth revisiting today.
“It was devastating, but you look back at what they did after, you see that throughout the history of Fargo, with the tornado of 1957, or the floods of 1997 and and 2009. The people of Fargo won’t let Mother Nature get them down,” she says. “We’re in a frustrating time, but it will get better.”