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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales of Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

“I Could Have Saved Bismarck with a Half Gallon of Water”: The 1901 Fire in Bismarck, Missouri

Bismarck, Missouri.jpg
Belchamber Family Papers, CG0041, State Historical Society of Missouri, Cape Girardeau Research Center.
A view of the business district of Bismarck, Missouri from the Iron Mountain Railroad tracks, taken a short time before the catastrophic fire of March 18, 1901. The depot is on the far right of the photo, Goeltz’s barber shop is the small building in the center.

March 18, 1901, in Bismarck, Missouri dawned with a strong south wind. Bismarck, in western St. Francois County, had been founded 33 years earlier, and the county court incorporated the community as a town in 1877. Named for Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” of Germany—there was hope of attracting German settlers. The town prospered as a farming center, fostered by being on the main route of the Iron Mountain Railroad, and by 1901 had around 800 residents. The business district grew on the east side of the railroad and faced the tracks.

Some witnesses reported seeing smoldering cinders blowing from the smokestack of a train passing on the main track before 9:30 a.m. One of these landed on the roof of the train depot and ignited the dry shingles. The station master quickly extinguished this fire. However, shortly thereafter fire appeared on the roof of Jacob Goeltz’s barber shop.

Goeltz saw the small flame on his roof, drew a pitcher of water, and ran through his attic to the roof. He saw the fire was in two spots and drowned all but a small patch with the water in his pitcher. By the time he could return, however, the entire roof was ablaze.

As Goeltz later stated, “I could have saved Bismarck with a half-gallon of water.”

Dr. J. J. Norwine recognized the situation well enough to shout to those trying to fight the fire, “'The town is gone! Don't fight the fire but save your things!' People dropped water buckets and ran into the burning houses to try and save as much as possible. The fire drove them out in 10 minutes, and, standing on the railroad track, they watched their homes and property burn from the safety of the tracks.

Goeltz's house and barber shop sat two buildings from the north end of the business district. The fire finished with his property in five minutes. Next it ignited Barth's Saloon, the alcohol within adding to the fire. The Commercial Hotel, Collier's Drug Store, and McAuff's store burned next. From McAuff's the fire jumped across the street to Winstead's store, Dr. J. J. Norwine's office, the Riley millinery store, and the City Hotel.

Embers blew from roof to roof of every building on Main Street, and sparks even jumped several blocks to the local lumber dealer and yard. The fire eventually stopped at the extent of adjoining buildings.

Within 30 minutes, fire had caused an estimate $110,000 damage ($3,841,000 in 2022 dollars). Two hundred people lost their homes, and three-quarters of the business structures, one-third of the residences, and the Baptist and Union churches were in ashes. The pride of Bismarck, the three-story City Hotel with 58 rooms, was gone. Fortunately, the smaller part of the town west of the tracks escaped the fire.

Tragically, owners lacked insurance for most of the structures. Most were wooden frame structures spaced adjacent to other buildings, and insurers charged high rates. Additionally, the railroad tracks lay less than 60 feet from the business district.

The Iron Mountain Railroad all but admitted responsibility for the fire and covered some of the losses after residents filed lawsuits. Businessmen rebuilt the business district and this time structures were mostly brick.