Buildings along the main streets of Minnesota's earliest communities were particularly vulnerable to fire. Even small blazes could grow quickly and incinerate wood-frame structures in densely packed business districts. The 1880s fires in Cannon Falls serve as an example.
The clang of church bells roused the citizens of Cannon Falls near midnight, May 21, 1884. A.B. Sather's Fourth Street general merchandise store had caught fire, and other buildings were threatened. Using the mill pond as a reservoir, residents organized bucket brigades and started moving water to the scene.
Sather's two story building was quickly engulfed and its nearby warehouse was ablaze. The Van Campen Brothers store then started burning, forcing the firefighters to change strategy. To cut their losses, they concentrated on saving the stone-clad Scofield Drug Store, hoping to stop the fire at that point. Volunteers moved goods from buildings in the apparent path of the fire onto the safety of the street or sidewalks. Their strategy worked. A rain helped in controlling the dangerous situation.
After the fire, estimated damage was $20,000, a severe loss for the business owners, but the fire could have been worse. Cannon Falls had no city water system or fire fighting equipment, so, thanks to the heroic stand by the citizenry, a potentially disastrous conflagration had been avoided.
Three years later a catastrophic blaze hit the city. The May 20, 1887 fire began at about 10:30 in the evening behind Ben Rodger's saloon located on Fourth Street. The building stood in the midst of seven wood-frame structures. They were all engulfed in flame in a half-hour. Volunteers on the scene hoped they could limit losses to those unfortunate seven.
However, winds launched embers and flames across the street where they quickly ignited more frame structures. Six more wooden buildings started burning. Firefighters opted to use the same strategy employed in May 1884 defending the stone Clifford and brick Yale buildings. It didn't work this time.
While these structures burned, the fires attacked Mill Street. The Ellsworth House and residence, a furniture store, Citizen's Bank, warehouses, barns, and just about everything else to the north of Mill Street, up to Hoffman Street, was destroyed. Nothing could halt the flames. They gutted Ellsworth's barn and Yale's warehouse on the west side of Fourth, then Thoorsell's warehouse, Johnson's photo gallery, and Wold house and store on the east side of the same street.
Cannon Falls volunteers tried to attack the growing inferno on several fronts, but with no success. They stayed with buildings in flame until forced to retreat. Barns behind the first seven buildings to catch fire burned as well. On nearby Estergreen Block a large warehouse soon was burning, followed by Alfred Johnson's blacksmith shop and barns. Village officials wired requests for help to Red Wing and Northfield, but these towns were too far distant to be of immediate help.
Firefighters saved the Thompson and Smith cooperage by dousing it with water. The Falls House survived, as did the Yale family house. In the Yale case, a bucket brigade passed water to a volunteer on the roof, keeping burning embers from starting a larger fire. The fire made the rooftop watchman so warm, he occasionally poured a bucket of water on himself.
When the fire was over, twenty-seven businesses, along with a large number of assorted buildings and houses, had been destroyed. The city center resembled a war scene.
In the aftermath, Cannon Falls civic leaders vowed never to be caught off guard again. Tougher building codes were enacted, a city water system was installed, a fire company organized, and a Firemen's Hall was built in 1888. The north side of town, separated from the south by the Cannon River, featured its own fire hall and company.
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Historical Sketches of Cannon Falls, 1854-1954. Cannon Falls, MN: Cannon Falls Beacon, 1954.
Johnson, Frederick L. Goodhue County, Minnesota: A Narrative History. Red Wing: Goodhue County Historical Society, 2000.
"Impact of Fire on Growth of Communities." Goodhue County Historical News 16, no. 1 (November 1982): 1-8.
Kalow, Dennis. Historic Cannon Falls, 1854-2004: A Sesquicentennial Celebration. Cannon Falls, MN: Cannon Falls Beacon, 2004.
Rasmussen, C[hristian] A. History of Goodhue County. Red Wing: Privately published, 1935.
Unprepared Cannon Falls villagers fight a dangerous May 1884 fire with some success, but take few precautions to prepare for another.