Anoka County History: Fires played a role in Anoka’s history

The timeline running the length of the east wall in the community room at the Anoka City Hall tells of many events occurring in the city of Anoka, happy and otherwise. For instance, we learn that in 1853 Orin W. Rice built the first bridge across the Rum River and that winter saw the opening of the first Anoka Post Office. During the school year of 1853-54 school was held in the Old Company Boarding House with Miss Julia Woodman instructing the children, and the first religious organization was a Methodist class organized in December, 1854. The first school house, the “Third Avenue School,” was built on Third Avenue South in 1955. The same year the first ferry was launched across the Mississippi at Anoka.

The timeline tells us that Josiah Clark organized the first singing school in 1855-56 and the Congregationalists, organized in 1857, built the first church in Anoka on the spot now occupied by the Government Center. It was later sold to the Catholics and the Congregationalists erected a new building on Third and Main. Its successor still stands there. The Christian Hill neighborhood is named for those two entities. And in 1859 the first Library Association was formed.

According to the timeline Commerce and Industry began with the first store opened by Edward Shaw on the NW Corner of Main and Ferry in 1854, and by August of that year the first sawmill was in operation, supplied with power from the Anoka dam on the Rum River. In 1860 the population of Anoka Township was 602, enough to warrant A.C. and E.A. Squires to publish a newspaper, The Anoka Republican. And in 1861 there were enough musicians around to form a coronet band with nine members of note. Wonder if they ever got together with the singing school.

The timeline shows that in 1858 the first attempt to incorporate the city failed, as did the second attempt in 1869 despite a population of nearly 1,497 (1870 census). Success came in 1878. The city of Anoka incorporated on March 21 of that year under its First Charter with an area of 2,270 acres which translates to 3.5 square miles. The city had now given up its Township Chairman-Supervisor form of government for a Mayor-City Council. The population by 1880 had increased to 2,706 and the first bridge across the Mississippi was built by Horace Horton replacing the Ferry.

Much of the Anoka City Timeline reads like a police blotter of disasters, mostly fires. The first flour mill in Anoka was constructed in 1854. Completed in January of 1855, it was destroyed by fire a month later. (Flour dust is very combustible.) J.R. McFarlan’s hotel burned in June of 1856.  In May of 1863 the County Treasurer’s office was destroyed by fire, killing George C. Colbrath, and the next year, 1864, the lumber mill of Stowell & Co. was destroyed by fire with a loss of $10,000. (Like flour wood burns very easily and during those early years fire protection was of the bucket brigade variety.)

By 1865 the population of Anoka had reached 849 with lumber mills and related businesses springing up on both banks of the Rum River. Some didn’t last long. In April of 1867 Cutter’s Mill, Tub, and Pail Factory caught fire and was destroyed and in September Houston & Prescott’s Sash and Door Factory along with Sias & Pomeroy’s Furniture Factory were victims of the red flame. The next year, 1868, fire destroyed the Anoka House Hotel as well. The decade of the 60s ended with the fiery destruction of 10 downtown stores with a loss of $20,000.

Fire losses continued unhampered into the 1870s. The first year of that decade saw the destruction of the Randolph Block in February with fire consuming three buildings, and fire claimed the Kimball House in August. From 1877-79, four more lumber businesses burned: W.D. Washburn & Co. in August of 1877 with a loss of $100,000; the Reed & Sherwood Lumber Yard the next month with a loss of 5 million board feet of lumber valued at $30,000; and to finish out that disastrous year, a fire at Bergsma & Co. Sash & Door Factory with a loss of $25,000. That fire also destroyed the Old Town Hall.  The decade of the Seventies was rounded off with an arson fire at Owen & Mayall Mill in June of 1879 with a loss of $10,000.

March of 1884 saw the $12,000 loss of Mack’s House Hotel at Main and Ferry, but the worst was yet to come. On August 16, 1884 the Granddaddy of all fires, the “Great Fire of 1884” destroyed the newly constructed Lincoln Flour Mill on the site of our current city hall and laid waste the whole business district of Anoka from the Rum River to Third Avenue. All in all 86 buildings were destroyed at a loss of $600,000. Bob Kirchner, a contributing columnist for the UnionHerald wrote a very descriptive and comprehensive account of that massive fire on the eve of its 130th anniversary in the August 15, 2014 issue of this paper. It’s well worth the reading.

There were benefits from the fire, however. From that point on, businesses build their buildings out of brick, most of it manufactured from the quarry at the Old Clay Hole in Coon Rapids and the Kelsey Brick Yard on Round Lake Boulevard, thus giving birth to a new industry in Anoka. And the city acted on the need for more efficient fire-fighting equipment resulting in a diminished number of noteworthy fires during the rest of the century.

June Anderson is a volunteer member of the Anoka County Historical Society. Join her had other docents this month for more history and mystery in the Ghosts of Anoka Tours. If you have a story to share, please contact her at [email protected].

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