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Arts & Life

The Great Murdo Fire of 1910

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The attached audio is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment.

In 1910, a devastating fire destroyed most of Murdo's business district. SDPB's Brian Gevik joins us for a look at the fire and efforts to rebuild on this episode of Images of the Past.

Brian's blog

Murdo, South Dakota had only just gotten started as a town when disaster struck on a cold February night in 1910. A fire that was likely started by a hot stove in a printing business on Main Street spread to nearby buildings and destroyed an entire block of businesses before it finally burned itself out.

Wayne Esmay owns an electrical contracting business in Murdo and today owns one of the few buildings that survived the fire. Esmay is also an amateur historian and has studied the story of the fire and its aftermath.

"Nobody knows for sure how it started, but they think it was the wood-burning stove in the print shop. The editor of the paper, he started the fire and went up to his residence on the upper floor. In a couple of hours, there was smoke and he raised the alarm. It was pretty devastating. It was the most devastating fire that Murdo has ever had. 15 businesses (were affected) and they were basically burnt to the ground. I mean, it just burned them completely up."

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It happened during the evening. The wind was blowing out of the northwest. Luckily none of the businesses further to the south caught on fire. They were worried about the lumberyards that were to the south, that they were going to catch on fire, but they saved those.

It started in the middle of the block and spread. It was 15 degrees below zero. What I've read is they had a pumper and it was manual and it took six men to push it down the street to get it to the fire. They got it down there, they got their hoses out and they started pumping and right away the hoses all froze up and they started breaking. So they couldn't control the fire. They just stood there and said, 'Well, let's pull the stuff out of the buildings'. There was a furniture store. It was a big furniture store. They saved a pretty good amount of the furniture out of that building and it all ended up on Main street piled in piles. They went into every business they could get something out of and put it all on main street. They saved some of their stuff, but they lost their buildings.

There was a hotel, there was a restaurant. The building I own was a saloon. They estimated the losses at $40,000 and in 1910, that was probably a lot of money. Only half the businesses had insurance and the insurance only covered half or less on most of those properties. So yeah, it had to been pretty devastating for those businesses. But most of them rebuilt. In fact, one fellow rebuilt bigger. He came back and built bigger. His hotel got burnt down and he rebuilt on the other side of main street, towards the north end of main street. And it was one of the biggest hotels in the Midwest at that time. Several of the businesses rebuilt that following spring. They had their buildings built by summer they went after it right away."

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Newspaper reports from the Murdo Coyote credit hotel owner P.F. Flack with providing the leadership that other business owners may have looked to as they weighed their options after the fire. He promised to provide a first class building costing not less than $5000.00.

“While Mr. Flack's loss in the recent fire was heavy, he has been in the hotel business here long enough to know what the possibilities are, and we are pleased to note that he has sufficient confidence in the future of the city to undertake this venture. There is not a loyal citizen in Murdo who does not hope that these plans may materialize and that the new building will be started at once this spring.

Such a building will be a great addition to the town, and we might add that there is a possibility of a number of much better buildings being put up in the part of the city destroyed Tuesday.

The fire, instead of disheartening our citizens, has given them new courage. It will probably tend to rush the work on our waterworks and the prospects are that when rebuilt the buildings will be much better than the old ones. While it was a severe loss to those in the block destroyed, all have taken a bright view of it and we look for a continued steady advancement in the town.”

Today, Murdo is a popular tourist stop on Interstate 90. It's Pioneer Auto Museum draws thousands of tourists annually, but Murdo mostly remains the farm and ranch service community that it has been since it was established on the Milwaukee Road rail line in 1906.