Ask Minoters of my generation which historic events or moments they most remember and the night the Grand Hotel was destroyed in a spectacular fire that claimed 10 businesses in all comes up almost as often as the horrific flood of 1969.
Certainly, as far as fires go, the Jan. 27, 1960, Grand Hotel blaze was the grand-daddy of its day. Located on West Central Avenue downtown, all that remains today of the 100-room Grand Hotel is a below street level parking lot, across the street to the north of Tom's Coin Shop.
Retired Minot businessman Mike Berg remembers the fire well, having been at what in retrospect could be called ground zero.
"I remember watching the firemen struggle with their hoses. The heat was intense as I was standing on Central Avenue in front of the Ward Drug Store. I had come downtown with my father to check on the family drug store, B & B, which was a block south of the fire," Berg recalled.
"It was cold and you could see the steam coming off the firemen's jackets. The ice was forming on the hoses and freezing on the ground," Berg said.
Intense indeed. And cold, too. According to newspaper clippings about the fire, flames shot more than 100 feet in the minus-14 degree air and were visible from as far away as Max, 28 miles to the south.
"Water cascaded onto the burning building as men pitted their strength against an unyielding wall of fire threatening to engulf a wider area," The Minot Daily News reported. "In all, according to an estimate by Glenneys Berg, water plant technician, upwards of 500,000 gallons of water was poured on the blaze."
At times, the freezing firemen, their equipment failing in the cold, were forced to direct their hoses not at the Grand, which was clearly going to be a total loss, but at nearby buildings also threatened by the flames. Sparks showered down on a 12-block area of downtown. At greatest risk was the adjacent Flat Iron Building, which was razed just a few years ago. A thick firewall between the Grand Hotel and the Flat Iron Building was credited with saving the latter. The Flat Iron Building also survived a fire in 1916 that gutted the structure on another frigid day, when the temperature was minus-52 degrees.
No lives were lost in the Grand Hotel fire, thankfully, despite it being nearly booked to capacity at the time. The building's janitor, however, was saved in a daring rescue by four Minot firemen, B.J. Murrey, Bill Kraft, Kenneth Lawley and Jack Houston. The janitor was reportedly asleep in his room on the third floor of the four-story hotel and was overcome by the smoke. He was found and lowered down to the roof of the Flat Iron Building and then to the ground.
Also lauded for their efforts that night were firemen from Minot Air Force Base.
"Ten on-duty Minot airmen were rushed to the scene to aid in the battle, along with 22 off-duty men, the latter group not equipped with winter fire fighting attire. In addition, a number of airmen were pressed into service controlling crowds and directing traffic," the Minot Daily said.
The crowd numbered more than 1,000 including hundreds of people who lined the Broadway viaduct to get a better look. Spectators on West Central, though, were forced to flee as bricks began falling off the Grand Hotel threatening onlookers and firemen alike.
The Red Cross set up shop in the First National Bank building to provide a warm place for firefighters to eat and take a break. Several firemen including some airmen suffered frostbite, and medics from Minot AFB were on the scene helping to provide first aid.
The fire had been reported at 7 p.m., and likely started in either the Triangle Dress Shop or the P.W. Miller Co. next door. But by morning, 10 businesses in the Grand Block were gone, including the Grand Barber Shop, Grand Billiard Parlor, Grand Cafe, Pioneer Bar, Grand Studio and the S&H stamp store. Minot Roofing and Cornice, located in a separate building north of the hotel, also burned.
While many people alive today can remember the Grand Hotel from back in the day, or at least the fire that claimed it, the hotel was a landmark dating back to 1906 when it was built by pioneer Olaf A. Olson, who came to the area in 1882, four years before the first buildings went up in Minot. In the photograph on this page, looking from east to west, one can see the original red brick hotel in the foreground and next, an addition that was completed in 1912 and finally the Flat Iron Building.
A little trivia question to be answered when Back in the Day returns next month: What was the name of the hotel before it became the Grand Hotel in 1917?
(Kent Olson is managing editor of The Minot Daily News)