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In North Dakota blizzard of 1916, firefighters formed 'ice shield' to fight fire

In what was considered at the time the worst storm in 48 years, western North Dakota was bombarded with 20 inches of snow and 36 mph wind gusts.

A clip from The Bismarck Tribune on Dec. 27, 1916, details the fire raging in the city's downtown amid a roaring blizzard.
A clip from The Bismarck Tribune on Dec. 27, 1916, details the fire raging in the city's downtown amid a roaring blizzard.
(Contributed / Newspapers.com / The Bismarck Tribune)
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Those dreaming of a white Christmas got more than they bargained for on Dec. 26, 1916. In what was considered at the time the worst storm in 48 years, western North Dakota was bombarded with 20 inches of snow and 36 mph wind gusts.

The snowfall began early afternoon on Christmas Day, and continued through the night, dropping 18 inches of snow by noon. Trains were snowbound for nearly two days, and taxis and cars in Bismarck were forced to drive on sidewalks in places where snow was too deep on the streets. It wasn’t long before travel in the city was restricted entirely to sleighs and bobsleds. Because streets were totally impassable from downtown to the capitol, even the governor and other state officials bundled up for a sleigh ride to their offices.

Perhaps the sleigh ride was cold, but businessmen could work in their warm offices. Other workers, however, had to battle the elements. As the storm raged, adults found themselves busy with making snow tunnels and ice fortresses—activities that are usually reserved for children and their imaginations. But these adults had to make their snow creations on a much larger scale. Snow plows were busy across the state carving tunnels through 13- to 15-foot tall snow banks for trains. Meanwhile, Bismarck firefighters faced a larger task: forming a giant ice shield on a building to protect it from a downtown fire.

Late on the night of Dec. 26, a fire broke out in downtown Bismarck. Firefighters were called down to battle the flames that were fanned by the strong gale. Fighting fire with water was difficult in the subzero temperatures, as water froze instantly to their clothes. “Firemen in jackets of ice, moving about as human icicles, fought the fire under the direction of Chief Thompson in a blizzard considered the worst since 1896,” reported the Bismarck Tribune.

The fire was already burning about a quarter of a block and firemen struggled to keep it from spreading. The only way to stop the flames, according to the Tribune, was for the firemen to turn their water hoses to a building in path of the flames.

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“As water lashed the building, it froze almost instantly, preventing the flames from the yards from taking a hold,” said the Tribune. “This morning … the structure looked as though a temporary ice palace had been erected by the firemen to stave their drive ... The coat of ice given this building held the fire in its limits of devastation, and was a remarkable piece of work on the part of the firemen.”

For those who experienced the blizzard of 1916, the lyrics, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know,” just might not have the same meaning for others. This is especially true for those who are disgruntled by the memories of brown Christmases of the last few years!

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from Humanities North Dakota. It is edited for presentation on Forum Communication Co. sites by Jeremy Fugleberg, editor of The Vault. See all the Dakota Datebooks at  prairiepublic.org,  subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at  shopprairiepublic.org.

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